The UK is now in lockdown, more or less. Everybody who can works from home and all non essential trips out of your house are prohibited, although, as yet, we don’t have the military on the streets enforcing these restrictions. With the ensuing quiet I have found myself more reflective than usual.
Now here’s a flitting stream of consciousness: . . . how did we get here . . . who is marshalling the NHS response . . . oh yes, that bloke who looks like a rabbit in the headlights, what’s his name . . . Hancock, yes, Matt Hancock . . . isn’t he the MP for West Suffolk, yes he is . . . other side of Bury St Edmunds . . . mmm, Bury . . . I wonder whether Blackthorpe Barn will run its Christmas Craft Fair later this year . . . that part of Suffolk is beautiful in winter . . . melancholy Suffolk . . . melancholy pines . . . ah the lonely Lady Drury and the Hawstead Panels.
Now there was a woman who knew about reflection and meditation and solitude. Her solo endeavours, her painted closet, installed in the now temporarily closed Christchurch Mansion, is a visual expression of living a contemplative life.
I have not been spending this disconcerting time on too much introspection, although I have been slowly working my way through my thousands of photographs, a process which turns out is intermittently thought-provoking. During this task I have come across pictures of earlier work I had completely forgotten as well as old rather poor quality photographs that I took when I first launched my online shop back in July 2013.
One or two of the old photos had captured a look, an expression that was worth saving. Six or seven years ago, and particularly before my week’s photography course, I hadn’t realised how much tidying up, enhancing and, well to put it bluntly, cheating could be achieved with Photoshop.
Nowadays, with a solid five years’ plus of amateur experience under my belt, I am so much better at getting the photograph I want (eventually), but sometimes the circumstances defeat my grand intentions. This was the case on a visit last month to the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ Museum. Not quite the tightly focussed, intriguing image I was hoping for, but I can always blame the delicate distortions of the fine, antique eighteenth-century mirror.
On Monday I went with my daughter to see James McAvoy play Cyrano de Bergerac. We booked the tickets last autumn as soon as they went on sale. We have already been lucky enough to see Mr McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Ruling Class‘. And, as with all those three previous plays, Cyrano is also a Jamie Lloyd/McAvoy collaboration. As it happens I have seen a traditional ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, back in 1992 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Robert Lindsay as Cyrano and also a film adaptation, ‘Roxanne’ starring Steve Martin, but my daughter came to the play completely fresh.
Neither my daughter nor I had read any reviews of this latest production although we had seen five star indications flying past whilst scrolling through social media. We tried to ignore them as we didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas or expectations. As it turned out, rather unusually for us, we both had the same response to this version of the play.
This is a play about poetry, about words, and about the beauty and power of words, but this was not a radio play, or a masked affair, it was a fully cast and staged production. As is usual choices were made: about costume, street-style; about props, contemporary plastic; about lighting, harsh and unforgiving and, of course, about the sound with the use of amplification. Although it was a minimal staging in modern dress, parts of this production were also very physical. All the actors wore discrete head mics and there was additional switching between these head mics and other cordless and wired stage microphones throughout the play. This had the effect of subtly adjusting tonal quality and volume adding extra contrast and intensity to the spoken words at different points of the drama. I assume this was a most considered choice to emphasise the importance of the text.
Interestingly and importantly the script is a new translation by the playwright Martin Crimp. There’s no stipulation in the 21st century to provide an equivalent, literal translation of a late-19th-century French text telling a 17th-century tale. To this end Crimp composes rhyming lines of contemporary language in a rap style enhanced in part with beatboxing. The pace and the punch of the first half of the play was thrilling and the delivery was augmented by the contrasting regional accents from the diverse ensemble. The intense, vigorous Glaswegian tones of James McAvoy seemed to add an almost physical layer to the sound. (Mind you I am a lover of Celtic accents and I could listen to Mr McAvoy read the phone book.)
I don’t think we consider contemporary versions of classic, well-known plays as revivals as such, especially with a new translation, but more as ‘a newly reworked production’ of said classic. Employing and amplifying a 21st-century linguist style to make a play more relevant for modern times was very successful. And, on the night we saw the play there was an immediate standing ovation for the cast and the performances. But . . . . and here it comes, yes, there was plenty of energy to showcase the words as I have mentioned above, but . . . . what about the nose? That very famous nose. It was a decision to have Cyrano with an implied, with an ‘acted’ enormous nose and not a theatrical prosthetic. However, I admit at one point l felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s small child viewing the Emperor as I watched a stunningly, physically attractive, charismatic, A-list Hollywood star giving without doubt an intensely, passionate and poignant performance as an afflicted Cyrano yet looking like a god had landed amongst mortals.
We humans are visual creatures. Sight is our dominant sense. A play is a combination of experiences and a staged production is usually more or less dependent on words and their delivery by actors, but we, the audience, are also reading all those non-verbal communications too. Non-verbal aspects of characters including physical appearance are surely central to an actor’s performance as well. To draw on physicality in this production and deliberately choose an uplifting diverse cast and yet require the audience to be blind to McAvoy’s undoubted physical charm and charisma and not mar his face with ‘the nose’ seemed perverse to me. It didn’t have to be a pantomime nose or even be particularly unrealistic, but just big enough for the powerfully, visually-dependent brain’s response to momentarily be interrupted and diverted to think physical disfigurement and not charismatic film star.
And, as we left the theatre my daughter (mid-twenties, infrequent theatre attendee, target audience?), turned to me and surprised me with her opinion questioning why he didn’t have a big nose.
I have now read the opinions of the professional critics who are not fazed by the ‘no nose’ issue. My daughter and I are aware that great theatre with great actors can be minimalist, just the performer and the words. It is after all about the suspension of disbelief. Theatre doesn’t need big sets and fancy costumes, but perhaps in this case a big nose is central to this play. Maybe it was our fault and we didn’t work hard enough to figure out the significance of the no prosthetic choice. We are just ordinary members of the theatre-going public, but neither of us could give this production fives stars. On this occasion my daughter and I go against the grain and venture where angels fear to tread and give it just three stars.
If you’d like to read another review which I think admirably sums up more about the production and performances and is also an alternative to the mainstream reviews, have a look at meandrichard – another wordpress blogger.
Over the last century there has been an amusing notion in the West that the length of women’s skirts is seen as an indicator of the state of the wider economy – the Hemline Index. A quick perusal of a variety of contemporary news and blog commentaries discussing this idea would suggest that slightly more commentators concur with the original proposition that skirts get shorter in good times than the reverse. Although the counter view that skirts actually get shorter in challenging times also had its supporters with more than just economic explanations for the perceived phenomenon.
It is just as you would expect, for every set of data there is a different interpretation of the data with as many different explanations as people doing the interpreting.
But I like the old, traditional version. The roaring twenties gave us higher hemlines around knee-height, with women’s calves on display for the first time in millennia. This period of affluence (for some anyway) was followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s with hemlines sinking back to around the ankles. The decades past until the Swinging Sixties brought us Mary Quant and the mini skirt, a truly short skirt for a time of optimism and booming markets.
Naturally, within a decade the hemlines dived again along with the world’s economy as the 1973 Oil Crisis hit. It was the era of the maxi skirt, and the hems of the Laura Ashley dresses, for example, hit the ground at the same time as major world economies tanked.
This all brings me to my recent observations regarding the latest fashion shows for 2020. Just when you think the Climate Crisis is finally at the top of the world’s agenda and the fashion sector is surely facing a time of moderation and sustainability, the runways are bedecked with strangely voluminous, outré and frivolous frocks, but at least as predicted by the Hemline Index, the frocks are indeed floor-length.
It would appear we are heading for some seriously choppy waters. And, as if to confirm this gloomy outlook we have tough and resilient from Jean-Paul Gaultier. In Paris last month he gave us the final show of his 50 year fashion career ending with the closing pair walking down the runway dressed as if they had just arrived from a ‘Mad Max’ dystopian future of climate chaos.
Last year, on the 9th November, this large version of a Noah’s Ark arrived in Ipswich, with the aid of a tug, and docked at the Orwell Quay down on the Waterfront.
It is big, it is very dark and it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a beautiful boat. The idea for this project came from the Dutch TV producer, Sir Aad Peters, and his boat, originally from the Netherlands, has visited Denmark, Norway and Germany, with this visit to Ipswich marking its first time in the UK.
It is a 70 metre wooden version of Noah’s Ark and also houses a floating exhibition of Bible stories. According to the local press, the boat features a 12ft tall Tree of Life that ‘grows’ up through the four floors of the vessel.
I haven’t been to see the exhibition as it isn’t my kind of thing being neither art nor a collection of historical, cultural artefacts. Plus, it is £16.50 for adults and £9.50 for children (4-13 years old) whereas Norwich Cathedral is free to visit despite its running costs of about £4,000 a day. And, even Canterbury Cathedral (running costs of approximately £18,000 a day) with its wealth of medieval culture of national and international significance, is only £12.50 for adults.
The online promotional information claims the vessel is a half-sized replica of Noah’s original vessel as described in the Book of Genesis.
14. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.
15. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.
16. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second and third stories shalt thou make it.
17. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth . . . .
Genesis, Chapter 6, Verses 14-17. The Bible, Authorised King James Version.
That’s clear then, its 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Although, I do wonder quite how this is a ‘replica’ when there is no description in the text of the boat’s shape neither of its overall appearance.
Interestingly, twenty years ago the scientist and marine explorer Dr Robert Ballard found evidence of a great flood that occurred in the Black Sea area around 5,000 BC. There is also evidence of human occupation of that area and of a world subsequently drowned by a great flood. However, so far, no ark or ark remains, or ark preserved impressions have been found.
Noah, Gilgamesh and other flood myths are most likely explanations of actual geological episodes that occurred in times before evidence-based, scientific accounts became available. If you have a look around the Web, it appears that finding a real, original Noah’s Ark is of considerable importance to some folks. However, in the meantime people can visit ark interpretations such as the one on the Waterfront or watch Darren Aronofsky’s film, ‘Noah’, with its Biblical accurately-sized Ark that has a very different appearance and doesn’t really look like a boat at all. I suppose if you think about it, the Ark only had to float as it wasn’t built for sailing.
Just to finish, here’s a photograph of a fine, stylish craft also anchored in the Ipswich harbour which was decorated very attractively for the recent Festive season.
The day after Christmas Day in the UK is known as Boxing Day. Why is it called Boxing Day? Well, the clue is in the name! However, it’s nothing to do with the sport of boxing, but everything to do with boxes.
And, no, that’s not packing boxes or even either associations with the ‘box’ room. (That’s the tiny, upstairs room often found in a traditional Victorian terraced house).
But, as with quite a few Christmas traditions in the UK, boxes for Boxing Day is a Victorian invention. During the reign of Queen Victoria household servants were given a day’s holiday on the day after Christmas and as well as receiving a boxed gift from their employers often went back home to their families bearing gifts in a box. And what might have been in such a box . . .
Well, it might have been tinned food. These old tins for Oxo and corned beef are on display at Ipswich Museum. Tinned products along with tinned fruit had become familiar food staples during the course of the nineteenth century. Such preserved food could well have been part of a such a Christmas box. How times have changed, a gift of food these days is more likely to be a very non-essential product such as luxury chocolates.
As we face the harsh truths of global warming I wonder how many of the other festive traditions – Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, puddings, pies, fowls, etc, beloved of the comfortably off Victorian, will no longer be considered sustainable.
Anyway, finishing on a positive note, one type of Victoriana which has thankfully mostly melted away into history is this form of the sentimentalisation of childhood, and, along with it this type of kitsch.
Last year at Christmas time the Cornhill in Ipswich was a public space that, although newly refurbished, was a cluttered muddle.
The splendid Town Hall and Corn Exchange was dressed with lights and the traditional, tall Christmas tree was erected, but any civic grandeur was lost with an ill-considered large new sculptural artwork and an additional seasonal shopping marquee plonked in the middle of the concourse.
During the course of 2018 there had been an extensive remodelling and refurbishment of the Cornhill as part of £3.6 million revamping of the town centre. Previously in front of the Town Hall the old paved pedestrian area that hosted the market stalls had sloped down towards the Town Hall. These stalls have now been moved to a pedestrian street to the side of the Town Hall, whilst to the front the Town Hall most of the sloping concourse has gone to be replaced with steps and a level area with a pavement fountain arrangement. Surprisingly and pleasingly, the new steps provided a good vantage point to view the youngsters participating in the Global Strike that took place earlier this autumn.
And, incidentally, whilst enjoying the passion and energy of the striking youngsters, I noticed the less than impressive sculpture ‘The Plinths’, often referred to by the locals as Cornhenge, was no more. It had not been well received (that’s a polite understatement) and despite costing in the region of £45,000 (according to the local paper), it has been removed. Its departure has left us with a clear view of the Town Hall and a more grand and impressive yet welcoming civic space.
Of course, with the sculpture gone it has also meant that the purely functional and expedient move to squeeze in more retail opportunities into the area (for example that seasonal Christmas marquee) have also been dropped.
However, we do not get off that lightly. In what looks like a last minute desperate decision the marquee has been squeezed into Lloyds Avenue.
One positive thought for this seasonal period is at least Ipswich doesn’t yet suffer from the faux Christmas Markets that have sprung up round the country in a pale imitation of the traditional community Weihnachtsmärkte of Germany.
That’s enough of the complaints, Scrooge has left the building, and instead let’s feast our eyes on a very attractive display of lights decorating the Town Hall.
Or, take an evening stroll down the Buttermarket with its eclectic architectural mix of buildings enhanced by an elegant display of Christmas lights.
Last week I went to visit the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition currently showing at the Ipswich Art Gallery. It is a fascinating, stylish display of visually elegant and appealing mechanical artworks.
And, what’s more you get to push small, red buttons to make the automata work in all their whirring and squeaky intricacy.
In these digital times it’s easy to take for granted all our speedy, convenient tech. We click and scroll without a second thought as to what is actually going on beneath the screen.
It wasn’t always so and the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition reminds us of all those bewitching clockwork and mechanical objects from the past. Some examples such as mechanical toys were purely for entertainment and some were functional equipment that was often beautiful too.
Functional objects from the past on display in this exhibition included a braille typewriter, a rather attractive ‘shrimp’ sweet making machine
and a scale model of the an early Otis lift.
Of course, humans have used mechanisms to make moving toys for thousands of years.
Naturally, in an Art Gallery some of the works on display are examples of art. These delightful mechanical sculptures by Paul Spooner are exquisitely crafted, and are both beguiling and witty.
I particularly liked the manner in which the mechanics are also on display in this piece. It has become an expression of our contemporary culture to reveal inner workings. Here you can see the cogs and spindles are finely made and are assembled in a functional and satisfyingly ordered arrangement.
Another work by Peter Markey, Artist-Painter, resonated surprisingly strongly with me. It’s as if he has been spying on me!
‘Marvellous Machines’ featuring these quirky pieces from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, continues at Ipswich Art Gallery until 3 November 2019. If you can’t get to Ipswich a list of upcoming events displaying some of these mechanical sculptures is available on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre website. Finally, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre sell some of their work online offering one-offs, limited editions and even ‘build your own’ kits.
It’s that time of year, if you are lucky and live near a bluebell wood, to go strolling through one of Mother Nature’s more enchanting realms. Delicate English bluebells form carpets of violet-blue beneath deciduous trees tinged with the palest of lime green.
I remember several childhood ‘bluebell’ walks. A couple were through the woods near Little Baddow, in Essex and another was an occasion when my family visited the woods near Butley Priory in Suffolk, decades before the remaining gatehouse was restored into a wedding venue.
But what if you live in the middle of a town?
Well, Holywells Park, Ipswich, does it again. The wooded area of the park may not be vast nor the ‘Bluebell Walk’ exactly long, but they are there, delicate, bluebells nodding gently in the breeze.
The Woodland Walk partly runs along one side of the park. On the other side of the high, brick boundary wall there’s Bishops Hill, also known as the A1156, busy with traffic. Yet as you walk on down into the peace and quiet of the park you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of a large country estate complete with a wildlife pond.
We’ve had some high winds and fast moving weather systems recently in East Anglia. Clouds, some with and some without rain, have been whipping across the Suffolk countryside.
These photographs were taken in less than a minute as we drove through the pleasant village of Little Glemham. It was almost a Hitchcock moment with the sudden darkening of the sky, but without the multiple flocks of birds.
And, then back in Ipswich on Monday, walking through Christchurch Park, it was all jolly waving daffodils in the bright spring sunshine . . .
and I spotted . . . a flashy, noisy bird who turned out to be camera shy!