christopher james

Poems and prattle

Fourteen

I have responded to fourteen of the most powerful works of art from the First World War with a sonnet (consisting of fourteen lines.) Collectively, they are a testament to those who fought and died.

Gassed

1919, John Singer Sargent, Imperial War Museum

GASSED

A blinded procession, a party game of sorts,
bandaged eyes, still clutching helmets, rifles,
an ordered chaos, they hold shoulders after
the barrage, the bullets, the gas; most stooped
but one still defiant: upright, hands in pockets,
fair hair, dapper, jacket hung on one shoulder,
as if having lost a football match. Another
turns away, vomits, as the mustard sun yellows
their shirt sleeves. At each side is a sea of men,
nursing their heads, making sense, others are
drugged with sleep; one swigs from a canteen.
As if in a dance, a soldier lifts up his foot a little
too high to step onto a duckboard and sanctuary.
In the distance, another party, oblivious to the first,
makes its own stumbling way out of Hades.

General_Officers_of_World_War_I_by_John_Singer_Sargent

1922, John Singer Sargent, National Portrait Gallery

GENERAL OFFICERS OF WORLD WAR I

Like men at the club caught between drinks;
a rubber of whist delayed while this duty performed,
they are immaculate.

Shirts pressed, ribbons bursting like flowers
at their breast; their riding boots never see mud.
They are without blemish.

Their coats need only fend off the wind
that blows down Whitehall and along Pall Mall;
their swords have never drawn blood.

Buttons polished, brass cleaned, they are
the great men of the England, reputations pristine
from the fields of Afghanistan, India.

They stand between columns that hold up the Empire.
Only one cannot look us in the eye.

Column

1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Birmingham Museums Collection

COLUMN ON THE MARCH

A barbed serpent, the column moves as one,
a beast of war, obliterating everything.
Its length is obscene, it has no beginning
and no end. It has wrapped itself
around the world: a snake’s embrace.
In its jaw is the forked tongue of victory
and defeat. It slides like an iron chain.
For miles there is the metronome of boots

moving east to west beneath
this Godless sky. Identically kitted,
there is no one man, only a repeated print
of trench coats, kit bags and rifles
like matchsticks scratching the air,
as the snake slithers further from Eden.

La mitrailleuse

 1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate

LA MITRAILLEUSE

An unholy trinity, three gunners plot
their kill; the triangulation of death.
Hard hats, cold hearts, they feed the gun
its magazine; it sucks and spits, hisses
and fouls like a genius in a fury, a dervish
drunk on its own laughter, berserk
with the perfection of itself.

They are welded together, a synchronicity,
like the parts of the gun, working in unison.
They cower beneath the scaffold of the trench,
eyeless, no longer men. In the chaos of fire,
only their aim is true. From here they cannot see
the smoke streaked sky or that their way
to heaven is barred with wire.

Canadian

 1917, Alfred Bastien, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art

CANADIAN GUNNERS IN THE MUD

The mud is not brown, but green and yellow,
the muck of creation: a swamp of purgatory.
A field gun is lying on its side, gigantic, metallic:
a god of thunder crippled in the mire. We have
reversed creation, invented a new death,
a new way to pound earth into a hell.
The sky is sea of fire; men are shadows.
They struggle with their machine, prising it
with planks and boards trying to make it live.
An officer directs; the men obey; this is
the way things are. They work because
they must, and will fight until they die.
On the horizon is a strange blue, a trick
of the light, or the sea, the sea, the blameless sea.

New World

1918, Paul Nash Imperial War Museum

WE ARE MAKING A NEW WORLD

This is no longer Earth; these are not trees.
This is not the brilliant glare of a new sun.
These black stalks are creatures of a new race
grown from the blood of men; they hang their heads
for the shame of it. This world is not yet made.
The mud bubbles up, as if by the heads of infants
struggling for air, they meet the thin atmosphere.
The sky is a wall of dirt; the red dust of a thousand
fires still burning as the planet forms. Today
is the first day after the darkness, and now there
is no memory of hope, of love, of solace, only
this pockmarked world, grown on the skin of the old.
And what of the light? It comes from a poison star
that gives life to these beasts of the new Eden.

Mule Track

1918, Paul Nash, Imperial War Museum

THE MULE TRACK

The hour of the shelling comes;
the shells fall.
We lead the mules along the track;
the guns call.
The world implodes; collapses in,
the field is cracked
in a devil’s grin
and the sky is fired with a plosive din,
it compounds the sorrow
of our original sin.
The mules rear up, shake out
their bloodied manes
as the path buckles
and shells fall.

nevinson_a_star_shell_big

1916, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate

A STAR SHELL

In a moment, the world is shattered
sub divided into fractions of itself.
We freeze in its mathematics.
The trench floods with mirrors of light;
mud quickens into life and barricades
become the linked arms of children.
All of the universe turns on this point:
the second before the sun implodes.
It is not the moment after I remember
but the fabrics on our tunics, the accent
of light on our helmets, the spots of rust
on our iron belt and the olive green of the
subaltern’s eyes; the star drifts peaceably
to the earth and in an instant – gunfire. 

Hell image

1917, George Leroux, Imperial war Museum

HELL

Through an arch of smoke,
you enter the burning cathedral.
The altar is a water-filled pit
where a dead man presides
in an open jacket, his face to the sky.
The nave is sea of mud
and open graves; broken trees
hold up the blackened roof.
In the water is a reflection of the fire
like a golden cloth laid
across a tabernacle. But there
is no God, no feathered angel,
no blue Madonna, as these pilgrims
leave relics of themselves.

Lawrence

Eric Kennington, 1926, Tate

COLONEL T.E. LAWRENCE

This is his Turin shroud, this sketch,
this impression; see how his neck
and shoulders fall away like dunes
how his eyes are lit with the grief of ages.
One side of his face in unmarked,
brushed by the light like the white sand
of the Negev Desert; the other is dark,
shadowed by the blood of Aqaba
and Tafileh. He knows nothing
of the future, but can feel history
all around him, the furrows of destiny:
of races at war, trains burning,
and the scowl of a dying star
throwing light on his thin, pale face. 

Over the Top nash

1918, John Nash, Imperial War Museum

OVER THE TOP

They are drawn towards the horizon
bayonets fixed, eyes locked in a dead man’s stare.
A shot officer rests on his knees as if in prayer.
His sword is discarded in the snow; they fight on
as someone cries: ‘forward!’ Right or wrong,
they close ranks, to seal the wound left in the line
and advance to the abyss, the unseen divine.
They walk on as if hypnotised by song
and those that live become breathing ghosts
forever drifting in these fields of snow
clutching their rifles then watching as hosts
of countrymen die on this cold plateaux
The handful of witnesses think on this most:
They killed us like cattle, row after row.

Kensingtons

1916, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum

THE KENSINGTONS AT LAVENTIE

Four days without sleep and then, Laventie,
a village of ruins, streets bedded with snow,
a place the shells for now, could not reach.
But still Wilson would not lie down, as tall
as he was the first day, his head domed
in a balaclava, watching the treacherous skies.
He carried the burden for us all, his rifle ready.
Sweeney lay in the ice as if on a summer
meadow, his cheek on a pillow of charred wood.
A purgatory of diamonds, a fiefdom of snow,
we were for a time the lords of all saw; kings
of the magpies that flitted through the rafters.
They eyed our treasures, our buckles, a crimson scarf
and the gold tipped helmet we stole from the Bosch.

Tanks

1917, Sir William Orpen

TANKS

Our sentries heard them first,
the clatter and groan, like threshing machines.
Then we saw them through the smoke:
a pair of Goliaths, monstrous, faceless
their tracks churning like mandibles.
They reared up like beasts, then flopped
into shell holes: cockroaches that had
survived the end of time, swelled to
nightmare size, unstoppable, unthinking.
We trained our howitzers, our pistoles,
then fled, as the rumble became a roar
and behind them, in shadows, we saw
the British come to claim our rotten soil,
Inside they burned in the grease and oil.

Interior
1917, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum

INTERIOR OF AN ADRIAN HUT

The beds are empty now, the soldiers gone
leaving only their impressions, the echoes
of their spirits and dreams; their mutterings.
The canvas smells of bleach and damp.
Somewhere a bird sings; voices are heard
outside, then drift away. In fields close by
men slump in their trenches, stuttering,
smoking, waiting for the whistle to blow.
But here, in this interior, we do not know
how many lived, how many died, only that
the beds are empty now and that morning
has come again and that a square of blue
French sky lights up the ward where men lie
in this church of whisperings, soft goodbyes.

In the Bleak Midwinter – Review of Clive Carroll, 11 January 2017

To the Apex, Bury St. Edmunds to witness a remarkable performance from Clive Carroll performing songs from his album, The Furthest Tree and beyond. Mixing influences of early music (the kind of folk baroque made popular by John Renbourn, more of whom later) with huge, almost prog-like bass-lines and complex patterns, he transfixed a packed house on this freezing winter night.

With his clean lines and superb technique, Clive’s compositions resonated powerfully inside the wooden cathedral of the Apex – a new and usually beautiful venue, both ancient and modern at the same time, much like Clive’s music. At one point it felt as if we were all contained within the body of an enormous acoustic guitar, and it certainly sounded that way.

clive

Taking a few moments to gather himself, an insight perhaps into his classical training and level headed temperament, he began with The Abbot’s Hymn, a beguiling tune, named after both the local Abbot ale and much missed John Renbourn, who acquired the nickname ‘The Abbot’ while touring with Clive in the early 2000s. Mention of John got a cheer of its own and the local reference was appreciated by the Suffolk crowd; they gave the piece their rapt-attention. It brought back memories of John playing on the Old Grey Whistle Test, a glass of red wine perched on his amp while he picked out the tunes.

Next up was In the Deep, a swampy, lugubrious piece that floated high into the rafters, before being grounded by a thunderous bass line that seemed to shake the building to its very core. The portentous mood was dispelled when Clive chatted to the crowd; with his head-boyish demeanour, he is as far removed from a rock and roll stereotype as you are likely to find, but his patter is hilarious, both learned and irreverent. He mentioned that he had recently played for both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York before confessing they were pubs not people…

Establishing a bond with an audience both musically and emotionally are Clive’s key strengths and we certainly invested in the music. He later acknowledged a debt to Shostakovich in an astonishing waltz, giving us a lesson in three-four time and its various permutations for good measure. Only once did he seem to lose the audience: mention of his Essex roots drew an element of unbecoming inter-County nose-holding, although he put paid to any stereotypes by reminding them that Holst himself made his home in Thaxted, the subject of a mind bogglingly pretty tune, Thaxted Town. It somehow managed to accommodate both Morris dancing and the melodic theme to Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country and was played with great affection.    

The centre piece of the set was a performance of Clive’s Renaissance Suite, based thematically on the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The difficulty that the piece was written for two guitars (second guitar on the record played by John Williams, no less) was surmounted by a ‘second Clive,’ previously recorded. The melodic intricacy of the piece and the fact that he had to both add a capo and retune mid performance without stopping the recorded part made for a thrilling bit of theatre. Suffice to say, he made it through without mishap. The Green Knight, a galloping tune was a superbly dramatic climax to this piece and was greeted with some open-mouthed astonishment. The poet, Simon Armitage has recently translated the 14th century poem to great effect and a collaboration between him and Clive would hold some wonderful possibilities.   

Perhaps the highlight of the evening however, was the final piece, inspired by a trip to northern Canada. With its icy, haunting melody and unpredictable dynamics, it was perfectly suited to this bleakly cold evening, full of talk of thunder-snow (that in the event would fail to materialise.) It would make for a fitting theme to a Nordic detective TV series. Has Clive explored such avenues you wonder?

With his wonderful poise, generous spirit and boundless musicality, Clive eventually made way for the swashbuckling Tommy Emmanuel, who was reliably astonishing. It would be too much to try and cover Tommy’s vivacious set here (perhaps another time) but Clive left a lasting impression, filling this dark, midwinter night with an ancient kind of magic.  

Seasons of the Moon: Review of Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló

I had the privilege of meeting Josep Lluís Aguiló at a poetry festival this year and I can testify that he is as remarkable in person as he is on the page, in equal parts challenging and inquisitive, funny, considerate and startling. He is also fiercely proud of his native Mallorca, still fascinated by its landscapes and mysteries. His work has an integrity, vigour and lightness of touch to it that is missing from so much contemporary poetry.

His latest collection, Lunarium is shot through with a sort of magical lyricism, occasionally surreal in the manner of Borges but with an originality all its own. While the harbours and sands of Mallorca are a constant presence, the imagination is the primary landscape. The opening poem, The Rules of the Labyrinth, is a rubric for the book and his brand of poetry; we are set on ‘paths that make us walk ever further from the centre.’ But there is a crucial detail: ‘they are paved with dark desire.’ Sexuality is an undercurrent throughout these poems.  

lunarium

There are several poems about poetry, or at least language, which is something that never offends me. I Have Lost a Few Lines is an ingenious, deftly comic piece about how lines slip away from the poet: ‘They are like shy animals/sometimes they pass right over me.’ They also escape by other means: ‘…some spirituous liquor has ruined them/or the visitor from Porlock.’ It is adroit piece of work about the elusive nature of the perfect line; the bon mot.

There is humour in abundance throughout, albeit as dark as it comes; I particularly enjoyed The Rights of the Dead, where the dead appear to unionise, organising themselves ‘into associations to establish their rights and preferences.’ While some prefer the ‘permanence of buried coffins’ others wish to be ‘quartered and placed on high/mountains so that birds may devour them.’

However overwhelmingly, these poems are an affirmation of life and love; a reminder that life is fleeting and we must make the most of the now: ‘We are drowning in a sea of time./Tomorrow we will be older.’ It is unashamedly romantic stuff. ‘Maybe we’ll never/ again have the energy have the energy to make love with the night on each other.

Josep’s poetry is perhaps, more passionate than most English poets would allow, without losing any of the complexity of allusion or technique. It is a reminder why poetry in translation is more important than ever; surround yourself with people who look and sound like yourself and you will find within your echo chamber a deadening of the language and a paucity of emotional range; it takes you to a dangerously reductive place. Anna Crowe’s magnificent translation allows Josep to show us a brighter, more luminous world of possibility and language. We owe Arc, and Tony Ward, the adventurous publisher of this and so many other important work from beyond our own shores, a debt of gratitude.

Josep’s poem, Poetry, perhaps makes the most compelling case for the poet’s right to ambiguity and a mercurial spirit of independence. He defies an easy definition of poetry: ‘They want us to explain, in a single headline the soul of wine … and all the shades of turquoise in the sea of Ithaca.’ Poetry, he concludes, is not what you read on the page, it is ‘what is left inside us/long after forgetting this poem.’

Fervent, accomplished and infused with the rhythms of the sea as well as the heart, Lunarium is a book to jolt you into life and appreciate the miracle of existence. It is a poet’s manifesto too: his role is to ‘paint, in the void that has been given to you/the burning desperate words.’   

 

 

Harvesting gold: Boo Hewerdine and Dan Whitehouse at Cambridge Junction 2 (25/10/16)

To Cambridge’s Junction 2 for a spellbinding evening with Boo Hewerdine and musical accomplice, West Midlander, Dan Whitehouse. Dan opened proceedings with a pared back set of emotive love songs, carried home on a succession of glistening electric guitar lines played on his battered Telecaster, (which, he tells us ‘was rescued from a pub loo in Camden’). Imagine a Brummie Jeff Buckley and you’re nearly there, with a warmth and grit in his vocal which transcended his flat Birmingham vowels. As modest as he is accomplished, there was a strong strand of Americana combined with an attractive English understatement. His songs demanded attention and his stage craft was superb.

Boo and Dan.jpg

Dan stayed on stage to add musical weight and heft to the songs of long-time troubadour, Boo Hewerdine. In something of a homecoming gig (The Bible played their early gigs at the Junction, next door), he was on assured form, leading off with comeback single Born, a litany of events from the year of his birth. This was swiftly followed by The Man That I Am, (already sounding like a classic) about the controversial child migration programmes to former Empire outposts. Village Bell rang out on Boo’s sky blue guitar filling the beautifully lit auditorium.

There were numerous highlights, not least a clutch of new songs, performed solo. Cinderella is a smoky, complex jaunt in the old style complete with Boo’s impersonation of an orchestra at the halfway point. Its cross-dressing theme (it’s from forthcoming musical Fancy Pants, written with Chris Difford) only added to the intrigue. Possibly his finest moment came in ‘Old Songs,’ an authentically ancient sounding tune (it could have been written in the 1930s) about the power of song in stirring lost memories. If Boo hasn’t shared this with those working with dementia, he probably should. With strange lost chords, unusual and affecting subject matter it’s another fine example of Boo’s quest for the perfect song.

Boo’s deadpan delivery (‘My record company is planning to turn me into a star – I’ve had plenty of practice’) is undoubtedly part of the attraction, but it’s the songs that constantly amaze. Sweet Honey in the Rock, originally from his State of the Union project is beefed up into a glorious stomp, augmented by a natty country solo from Dan. Their metronomic timing created a seemingly hypnotic effect on performers and audience alike. More recent songs, like Harvest Gypsies, sound every bit as strong as perennials like The Patience of Angels and Honey Be Good, the great lost classic from eighties. Boo’s voice was particularly strong this evening, nowhere more so than on an ambitious take on the Bee Gee’s ‘I Started a Joke,’ which soared to majestic heights.  

While light on tunes from his Brooks Williams collaborations (no Hellzapoppin!) Boo has songs to spare and is adept at varying his set to provide enough interest for long-time fans, as well as to keep himself engaged.

As with many Boo gigs, there is the spectre of a parallel universe where the Bible became as big as U2, and Boo became a superstar. As things stand, there were not many who would have traded the opportunity to listen to such fine songs in such an intimate setting. It was life affirming, inspiring stuff from two uniquely blessed musicians dedicated to their song craft, respectful of their musical forebears and still digging for musical gold.

Fragment of lost play by William Shakespeare discovered in Tuscany

Four hundred years on from Shakespeare’s death, the discovery of a fragment of a new play, The Jeweller of Florence, is dividing academic opinion. Could there really be an undiscovered work in the Bard’s canon?

There are two plays generally accepted to be written, at least in part, by William Shakespeare, which are now considered ‘lost.’ The first, ironically, is titled, Love’s Labour’s Won and is mentioned on a contemporaneous 16th century bookseller’s list. It is also referred to by the late 16th century writer Francis Meres, although no text is extent. This has led some scholars to believe that it was merely an alternative title for All’s Well That Ends Well or Much Ado About Nothing.

shakespeare

Then there is the intriguing prospect of Cardenio, said to be a late collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher, also referenced in documents from Shakespeare’s time. Its source, it is said, is Cervantes’ Don Quixote , which fits Shakespeare’s pattern of drawing on existing sources as the starting point for his own works. Over a hundred years on from Shakespeare’s death, a play emerged called Double Falsehood  produced by one Lewis Theobald in 1727. He admitted that he adapted it from no less than three manuscripts of an unnamed play by Shakespeare. Critical consensus is that Double Falsehood does indeed contain authentic work by Shakespeare.

This leads to the most recent discovery, in February 2016 of a single page of a play in a private collection of papers in Lama, a remote hamlet in Tuscany. ‘The fragment is a tantalizing prospect,’ says Shakespearean expert, Professor Anna Greening, ‘made even more so by the name of Ferdinando I de’Medici inscribed in the margin, leading some to believe he was the patron of the work.

‘It is thought to be written around the same time as The Merchant of Venice, 1596, possibly earlier. A draft of the inscription, also included in the papers reads: The most excellent history of The Jeweller of Florence being the true account of the marriage between Alessandra, daughter of the Duke of Florence and Flavio, master jeweller. With the obtaining of a necklace of pearls for the wife of the Duke and the comic interludes of Filippo the clown who appears in divers jocular scenes.’ 

It was discovered in a cache of papers by a family who had recently purchased a property in the area. ‘The theory runs as follows,’ says Professor Greening. ‘Ferdinando I de’Medici, son of the infamous Cosimo I of Florence, was a cardinal and eventually the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was a ruthless and perhaps a cruel man even by the standards of the day. But at heart, he was an artist. This manifested itself in his collecting. He was a man of enormous curiosity and boundless appetites. He created an unrivalled collection of sculpture, bestowed patronage on poets and composers and commissioned mosaics, notably the intricate pietre dure created from precious stones.

‘Above all, he was obsessed by the idea of artistic genius. As a man of the court, naturally his principle entertainment was theatre. The re-enactments of battles on the Arne are legend. But he was a man of the world and his interests extended far beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. He dreamed of establishing civilizations in the new world, creating great cities in Brazil. We believe he had heard of this man William Shakespeare and had his plays translated and enacted for him. He was fascinated by the playwright’s mind; how he could conjure a man from the air and make him as real as you or I. But it was not enough simply to hear his plays; the same words that had been heard by countless others. The Medici was a family of limitless wealth and power. Nothing was impossible for them and once set on a course they could not be easily swayed. Through his brokers he sent word to England that he would commission this playwright at whatever cost. He wanted a play that would be no less dazzling in its ambitions than any other Shakespeare’s great works. For this he would pay handsomely. But there was one condition, it must be his and his alone.

‘A fee was negotiated, it is believed through Richard Burbage, the actor and one of Shakespeare’s closest associates. No one has recorded the sum, but it must have been stupendous. In 1596, he was writing four plays simultaneously. How could he write another?

‘Legend has it,’ continues Professor Greening, ‘that he wrote it in a furious burst over three days. At the end of it he drank a bottle of Spanish wine and then slept for a day and a night. A single copy was printed in conditions of the greatest secrecy.’

If the theory seems fanciful, then the fragment itself is convincing enough, even if, perhaps it does not contain some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry.

DUKE

What music, sir, is this?

 

ANTONIO 

Tis wedding music, my lord. They practice as larks at dawn.

 

DUKE

What happy pair will join in such delight?

Hannibal’s elephants would not trumpet

With such joy as this. The trunks of England’s

Trees would shake at such a cacophony.

This fanfare of angels, this well wrought sound

of heaven, has seeped through our vault of sky

and filled the twin cathedrals of our ears.

Fetch me those who engendered this row

I shall bless their matrimony, their solemn vow.   

 

                                                                (They go)

 

SILVIO

What foul weather has blighted our fair conceit!

The servant’s flapping tongue forewarns the duke

Of a marriage. But yet he has not wind

That these nuptials are his own daughter’s,

And that she is betrothed to the only son

Of his foresworn enemy. What dark skies

would come from this unseen tempest;  

such squalls and that would wreck his heart.

 

MARCELLO

Soft, fair brother, he hath not the reason

Nor temperament to suspect; his season

Is always spring; serenity blossoms

In him as bitterness dwells in the spleen

Of the cynic; by the time he smells the rose

The altar will be clear, the candles snuffed.

 

SILVIO

Now where goes Flavio? These hours ‘til our

Brother’s union will I fear be fraught;

But for a stoup of wine to numb our nerves.    

 

While the possibility of a hoax remains, the pages are currently being forensically examined and dated with the results expected in January 2017. Then there is the question of the remainder of the play. Is it still waiting somewhere on a Tuscan hillside to be discovered?

There is a compelling piece of evidence that corroborates the story. In 1597 Shakespeare suddenly found the money to buy New Place, the grandest house in all of Stratford. How could a simple actor find such wealth?

The discovery has already inspired a work of fiction: Sherlock Holmes and The Jeweller of Florence, by Christopher James, which puts the famous detective on the trail of the lost play.

Anyone for tennis?

A brand new song for all you lovers of barley water and white flannel trousers! Anyone for Tennis? 

tennis

The Tour de France Song

A belated tribute to Chris Froome’s third triumph in the Tour de France. With apologies to the French. I mean only goodwill!

TdF

‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.’ Review of Hamlet, Outspoken Theatre company, East Town Park, Haverhill

As a play, Hamlet is full of questions, the most famous of which perhaps is the life and death choice: ‘To be or not to be?’ But there was no question over the quality of the Outspoken Theatre’s superb production. In the atmospheric setting of East Town Park, with crows in the trees and the creeping dark of a summer night, the company staged an emotionally charged performance of this most daunting of works. With a minimalist set, director, David Hart let the poetry do the talking; his own voicing of the Hamlet’s father’s ghost  was exceptionally well done. He caused ‘each particular hair to stand on end/Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’

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There wasn’t a weak link among the cast, which was efficiently employed, with some playing two or even three parts, notably the versatile Candice Danleigh. Alfie Allin was compelling as a restless Hamlet, by turns brooding and animated, with darting eyes and wild flights of fancy. His leaps, bounds and cat calls made him a wonderfully unpredictable presence. But there was variety in his delivery too; a bar stool, upon which he perched to deliver some of his soliloquies, was a witty touch. Hart was also careful not to be too reverent: Gravedigger, (Debbi Walters in excellent voice throughout) ate a cheese sandwich during Hamlet’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick…’ set piece.

The fact that Hamlet and his friends are students was emphasised in both costume and manner. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (Emma Letcher and Jacob Simmons in mischievously good form) were seen helping themselves and filling their pockets with free food from the royal table. Lorraine Mason’s loyal Horatio meanwhile wore an Oxbridge style scarf. Her clearly spoken, level headed performance made her the stabilising presence in the otherwise spiralling madness of the Danish court.

The pace was sure footed and the first half was peppered with highlights. Alan Davison was a comic delight as the pompous, long winded Polonious and promising newcomer Daniel Payne gave a witty, vibrant performance as Laertes, at one point miming along to his father’s advice (‘To thine own self by true etc.) as if to show he had heard it all before. It is an odd part, as he is absent throughout much of the play, but his return at the end as the avenging brother was thrilling and his nimble sword fighting was an electrifying finale.

Steve Murray gave a suitably lascivious turn as the dastardly, usurping uncle, Claudius, who murders his brother and steals his wife. His naturally authoritative public tone was undermined perfectly by his guilt ridden, hand wringing soliloquies. In short, he was  the ‘something’ that was ‘rotten in the state of Denmark.’ Andy Letcher was accomplished in multiple roles, particularly as the decorously spoken Osrick, master of ceremonies at the sword fight.

But it was the two principle women who stole the show. Catherine Keeble gave a nuanced performance as Gertrude, conflicted by her love for her son, attraction to her new husband and desire to maintain her position in court. She was waspishly short when required (‘More matter, with less art,’ she instructs Polonius) but her delivery of the play’s greatest piece of poetry – her vivid, heart rending account of Ophelia’s death was masterful, clutching her ‘fantastic garlands’ as she sank into the ‘glassy stream.’ Billie Allen as Ophelia herself was superb, at once formidable with the courting Hamlet and haunting as she slides into madness and grief. Her broken singing and disturbing sense of purpose as she distributed flowers, a sort of natural justice, was the emotional heart of the play.

The company disappeared after the first curtain call, but easily deserved to return for another. They filled East Town Park with ghosts, dreams and poetry at the ‘very witching time of night.’

Review: Born EP by Boo Hewerdine

The Born EP finds Boo Hewerdine in reflective, but never less than tuneful mood. The lead track, The Year That I was Born is a gently ironic meditation on the momentous events of the year 1961. From the publication of Catch 22 and the death of Hemingway to the ‘cracking of the genetic code’, he succeeds in producing a more measured, and quintessentially English, version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.  

Boo Born

To stately piano and understated bass and percussion, he contrasts these seismic events with his own lethargy ‘(‘I let today just drift away’) and ultimately the admission that he was nothing more than a blip in history and just ‘another mouth to feed.’ However you cannot help but feel he was quite pleased to have made his own minor ripple in this eventful year. The major chords and gently ascending melody capture the optimism of the new decade, before being tempered by minor key diversions, suggestive of the looming threats of Cold War; he celebrates the: ‘post war girls and boys in a world that might explode.’ His voice, as always has a doleful clarity which seems to evoke pathos, resignation and humour in equal measure. It’s all quite beautiful. Further listening: That’s Me, by Paul Simon and That Was Me, by Paul Simon.

Hometown is an equally reflective piece and is delivered in a quietly dramatic performance. To the accompaniment of well mannered, front parlour piano, and with pastoral images of drifting clouds and passing bees, the narrative is pleasingly oblique. The theme, right across this EP, is the passing of time, and here, memory in particular is a place of sanctuary and retreat. It has a heartbreakingly beautiful bridge too.

Swimming in Mercury is a playful waltz with a bittersweet theme, namely that old television sets contained mercury, a deadly toxin that sat happily in the corner of the room beneath the plant pot and the school photo. It has the carefree resignation that is thoroughly charming.

If we are to skip past Tim Rice’s thoughts on the subject, Chess is hardly obvious territory for songwriters. However Boo hits a rich seam with Bobby Fischer, an elegiac two minute bio-pic of the 11th World Chess Champion, who placed himself into self-imposed exile in Iceland. The central tragedy is a genius who for reasons of his own turned his back on his talent, seeking ‘sanctuary in the land of ice and snow.’ The wordplay with ‘openings’ and ‘sacrifices’ is skilfully done and the chorus is strangely uplifting; the ironic counterpoint of the major key melody and downbeat sentiment is once again Boo’s trump card.

Finally, ‘Farewell’ is an elegant, doomed waltz that provides a fitting coda to an exquisite EP that is a love letter to Boo’s past. But far from being a pall bearer for the 20th century, with these songs you get the sense of Boo exploring his cultural influences, the landscapes of the past, drifting back to unlock his own identity and find the source of the river. 

The Sherlock Holmes Toolkit – 10 things you’ll need to write a new Holmes adventure

So what are the ten things every aspiring Sherlock author needs to write a convincing Holmes novel or short story?

Vicar

  1. A splendid title, preferably with a colour in it: there are no less than ten adventures in the original canon that feature a colour in the title, from The Adventure of the Yellow Face to The Adventure of the Red Circle.
  2. A reliable guide to Victorian London slang:
  3. A superb, twisty plot. If you can’t come up with one of your own, why not seek help from this work of madness: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/01/06/plotto/
  4. Some historical knowledge of the year in which your adventure is set. Your friend Wikipedia is the invaluable help.
  5. All 56 Holmes short stories and four longer works. There is simply no point starting until you’ve read all of these. You will just annoy aficionados with your school boy/girl errors..
  6. The MacGuffin – the object, person or idea that the protagonists seek and which drives the plot along. Think Rosebud in Citizen Kane. For your Holmes adventure this could be a suitably curious object of unknown providence. I used eight ruby elephants for my first Holmes adventure.
  7. Some choice vocabulary. Holmes is an eloquent fellow. You may need to brush up your English if you are to produce a truly credible effort.
  8. A brilliant villain – give him some suitably grotesque impediment, such as a missing ear or six toes on one foot. He should be a match for Holmes in strength and intellect. Don’t automatically reach for Moriarty.
  9. Some light relief – there’s plenty of humour in the original canon, so bring on some light relief in the form of some helpful nitwit or ludicrous situation. In The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, Holmes stuffs a diminutive monocle salesman (who insists on wearing two monocles at the same time) in a large Ming vase.
  10. Some philosophical moments – some of the best of Conan Doyle’s writing is when Holmes muses on some aspect of the human condition from his lofty vantage point in 221B Baker Street.

Buy two new Sherlock adventures for a limited time only on eBay, including The Jeweller of Florence which is not officially available until 16 September 2016

Album review: Dredging by The Levels: Live Recordings and Home Demos

Nothing will quite prepare you for the sound of The Levels. From the opening commotion of birds in flight and what appears to be the Dr Who theme thrashed out on a slack tuned guitar, this is an expedition into the unknown. Notes for Explorers: be prepared!

This instrumental outfit, led by the twangular guitar and singular vision of polymath Darren Giddings, has pioneered its own brand of west country surf. That said, they are not afraid to stray into jazz, alt-rock and Pavement-style rock and roll.

Levels image

Due to the somewhat haphazard track listing (the song titles are buried within a poetic steam of conscious) I am uncertain where one song ends and another starts, but it hardly matters. The album effectively operates as a suite with ecology, nature and localism at its heart.

References to Giddings’ previous musical adventures are apparent in the dogmatic, asymmetric guitar lines, but this band is not afraid of breaking new ground too. Bursts of jazz-infused sax, complex bass lines, rumbustious drums and spoken word sound loops are proof enough that The Levels operate far from the mundane. And they are not adverse to rocking out, with complex signatures bursting out of their introspection into foot on the floor 4/4.

Local concerns, not least the recent floods that so badly affected the Somerset Levels (hence the band’s name) inform many of the pieces. A sound collage made up of media reports cut together is particularly striking and some bad tempered riffing that bookends it hints at their displeasure that the area was somewhat neglected by government.

When all’s said and done, The Levels first recorded outing is a vital, strident, eclectic musical statement driven by a pulsing, hypnotic rhythms. It takes the listener on a journey deep into a mist filled landscape where the ghosts of musical figures past emerge then disappear across the flood plains.  It is as if the Magnificent Seven have been magically transported to Somerset and coerced into musical action by Duane Eddy.  And surely that’s no bad thing.

Find out more on their Facebook page.