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Christopher Purves, The Spectator

Posted on September 19, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

“We all feel inadequate, we’re all frightened of looking absurd.”

One of “the great operatic artists of the present” sips coffee in his quiet Oxford kitchen. The artist is Christopher Purves, the description Michael Tanner’s (The Spectator 13 March). In recent years, Purves’ fluid, eloquent baritone and considered acting have received rolling acclaim: Glyndebourne, La Scala, Teatro Real Madrid; Falstaff, Mephistopheles, Beckmesser and more. This year came his psychotic Protector in Written On Skin at Covent Garden, and now Walt Disney in Philip Glass’ The Perfect American at the ENO.

But first we talk about his children, whose pictures mosaic the kitchen cabinets, and mine. Purves is my cousin Edwina’s husband, and my son Benedict’s godfather. Over 20 odd years, from the couple’s Stoke Newington flat to this Oxford house, in pubs, family parties and backgarden football, he has remained the same effusive, funny man; an energizing, affectionate presence but who, thick-set as a prop forward, drives himself hard.

After King’s College, Cambridge (a choral scholar, he read English), he joined Harvey And The Wallbangers, the mid-80s, Albert Hall-packing pop eccentrics. Then Purves began his determined journey to La Scala et al, taking singing lessons paid for by performing in early music ensembles.

“I love the perfect pop song that takes three minutes to unfold, develop and go back into its shell.” He closes his hand. “But opera has everything you could want.” He opens it. “Pop music wasn’t on a big enough scale”.

It gave him one crucial insight though. “The audience come not to pillory, they want you to do well. A lot of performers think the audience is 2000 critics and it’s not. I feel very happy on stage, probably happier than in most social contexts, because I’ve learnt it’s safe.”

Two pivotal experiences made it safer. The late director, Clare Venables, pared his acting. Rehearsing The Cunning Little Vixen, she questioned his “big lumbering” entry.

“I said ‘But how will the audience know I’m the Forester?’ She said ‘They’ll look in the programme. And if you’re clever, you’ll do nothing that shows that you’re not the Forester.’”

The other was Ines de Castro’s world premier in 1996. He held the stage for 10 minutes as the Executioner, and exhibited his strength at dark roles.

“People went away thinking, ‘That executioner, that was really interesting.’ And they weren’t repulsed by it.”

Surely, I say, they should have been?

“They should, but if you’re not immediately repulsed, you’re drawn in. And the audience realise there are qualities the character has in common with a lot of people. We all have it in us to be horrible.”

Is it worrying he can identify with these characters?

“Yes it is, but I feel at home on stage because those characteristics you employ to flesh out a character, remain on stage. A lot of imagination goes into a character that you would never, ever exhibit in normal life.”

Derangement has been good to Purves, and self-affirming: as mad Wozzeck in WNO’s awarding-winning, 2005 production, “I wasn’t listening to myself and thinking ‘Will the critics like that?’ I wasn’t trying to make it clever, just truthful.”

How do established roles, like Wozzeck, compare with newly-minted ones, like Walt?

With new roles, “Everyone is giving you guides but really it’s up to you. You have to invent it, learn it and have it under your skin, so at the first performance, chyoo!” He throws an imaginary dart. “There it goes. That is a wonderful feeling, inventing.”

Established roles have limits. “If a director says, ‘It should go like this’, it’s my job to try and do his bidding. I think some performers try to influence a production because they feel inadequate. I’m not being judgemental: we all feel inadequate, we’re all frightened of looking absurd. But a lot of people don’t want to do anything different, because somehow it’s going to make them feel different. I love feeling different.”

And trying different things. In Written On Skin, Purves made the Protector’s voice increasingly harsh, to reflect his growing psychosis. “He started to lose beauty of tone. You start off thinking opera is about the beautiful voice, but for me it is trying to work out what the composer and librettist want, and trying to express that.”

“I think, ‘What are the words, the story, telling me, now?’ No one wants to see a rehearsal of everything you’ve learnt in the rehearsal. The idea of rehearsal is you know it so well you can investigate anything. You don’t have to worry about the cues, music, words, it’s all there. And now is the time to let your imagination run wild.”

If the result isn’t mass-market entertainment, Purves won’t worry. “Opera is something that doesn’t necessarily have to be popular and doesn’t necessarily have to please everyone. There is a danger in our culture of thinking everything has to be nice, that opera has to have a nice tune. It doesn’t. Some of the most extraordinary emotional moments in our lives come from discord.”

Ambitions remain: singing more early music (his solo CD last year was all Handel), demanding Verdi roles like Rigoletto, Nabucco, and “bigger Russian stuff”. He’s still driving himself, isn’t he? Purves smiles. “I’ve never gone for the easy life.”

The demands of The Perfect American, which premiered in Madrid in January and place him on stage almost throughout, are physical.

“From a contemporary point of view [musically] it’s the easiest thing I’ve done. The music shifts slowly, one idea is explored then another, there are lots of repetitions. You have to slow your body clock, but you can’t slow your mind. I found that really, incredibly hard.”

Will he get first night nerves?

“I always get nerves. We have this joke, before you go on stage ‘If I turn left now rather than right, will that will be alright?’ But as soon as I go on,” He clicks his fingers. “I’m fine. Nerves heighten the importance of what I’m about to do: be as good as I possibly can.”

Being that good starts at the bottom of the garden. Past a giant trampoline and scattered footballs is a timber summer house. In its small practise room, a piano is scattered with scores. (Neighbours couldn’t hear him when he stopped practising in the main house, and complained.)

So if he is on stage at the Coliseum it’s all – “Been prepared in here, yes, in my little 10 foot by 4 foot.”

Does he imagine himself on stage as he practises?

“No, I’m just getting it into my thick skull. So when I get on stage, I can do whatever I want.”

1 June 2013

Qais Akbar Omar, Economist.com

Posted on September 19, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

“There used to be trees and flowers everywhere. Now there were dead bodies everywhere, human parts here and there.”

When the Taliban left Kabul in 2001, life restarted for Qais Akbar Omar. He helped rebuild the family carpet business, interpreted for the UN, worked on a Dari language version of Love’s Labour’s Lost and co-wrote an account of it, Shakespeare In Kabul.

Omar’s new book, A Fort Of Nine Towers, is a poetic, funny and terrifying account of his family’s life between the Soviet Army’s exit and the Taliban’s retreat. He describes his family’s attempts to escape Afghanistan, their time living among Kuchi nomads and in caves by the Bamyan Buddha statues (which the Taliban destroyed in 2001). They return to a Kabul of rockets, capricious snipers and civil war as armed factions fight for power. It is a book of hellish encounters – a fighter who grows roses in severed heads, predatory Talibs – and familial love.

Omar is  taking a degree in creative writing at Boston University and, from a distance, helping run his family’s carpet business in Kabul . He spoke to The Economist from Boston – his voice light and urgent – about faith, war and the carpet-maker’s art.

The book is so extraordinary I must ask: is it all true?

Yes it is, everything. After 9/11, foreigners in Afghanistan wanted to know what it was like during the civil war. When I talked about the past, I felt better because before that I had nightmares. My friends said it worked like a therapy so why not sit and write? Two, three years later I thought I’ll try it, because I still had those dreams. So I sat in my bedroom, started writing, and couldn’t stop for two months.

The book describes terrible events. Why didn’t they shake your faith in God?

Poetry plays a huge role in our culture. Of course there were times you felt despair, then you read a poem and it brought everything into perspective. There is a poem by Rumi: ‘A new challenge every day/ You keep away and delay/ When I have to close the gap/ Fate says there is a bigger play.’ No matter what I do, how hard I play, fate has a bigger play. You just submit to the will of God.

Why would the events be God’s will?

Yes, when there were rockets raining over the city, we talked about these big issues. Why are we deprived of peace? Should there be a lesson in that? We try to see good in everything, to find something to hang on to.

What effect did seeing your father and grandfather terrified have on you, as a child?

A really huge affect. You think ‘If these people cannot find a solution, how will I?’ Sometimes I would try to find the answers in books. I used to read Socrates, Plato, the Old Testament, the Koran, poetry. Sometimes I found a solution, sometimes not, but it kept my mind busy and away from what I was feeling.

You were also a child when your family tried escaping Afghanistan. Was that an adventure or did you realise the dangers?
Except when I had to deal with seeing my father or mother in despair, it was the greatest adventure of my life. Like in Bamyan, running from one cave to another, playing with kids. Running in the mountains, playing in the river.

You call the civil war The Time Of Shaitan [Satan]. Do you see that literally?

Yes, because Satan would do those things. Satan would try to destroy a peaceful country, that was a lush garden, that had nice people. We don’t lack in culture or family values, and you [Satan] come and destroy.

Did being boxers help you and your father endure the civil war?

It helped a huge amount. I went to the room where I had my punching bag and I would punch that thing for hours and get all this pain out of me.

How did your mothers and sisters endure?

They spent a lot of time reading, and writing letters, to cousins, aunts, uncles, in other parts of the city. As soon as we had a ceasefire, we exchanged letters with them. When you walked out [in a ceasefire] you remembered how there used to be trees and flowers everywhere. Now there were dead bodies everywhere, human parts here and there.

What are you studying?

Creative Writing. There was a gap between my visa and my next programme. The professor created an [extra] American Literature programme for me, so I don’t have to go to Afghanistan and get in trouble because of my book. Some of the people I have written about, the factions, are still there. I didn’t write about them much, just the effect of war on an Afghan family. Who was the cause? Who should be blamed? The readers will decide.

So you need to gauge reaction to your book in Afghanistan before returning?

Exactly. In Afghanistan, as soon as you raise your voice, they try to shut you down. I don’t want to be shut down.

Is writing your future, or carpets?

I did not intend to be a writer. Everyone is saying I should continue and I will try to, probably, but carpets are my passion. How you wash the wool, spin it. Dying is a whole mystery. Then the designing, weaving, the wash. Every level is fascinating.

Is creating carpets and books similar?

When you create a carpet you have a medallion, a border and small patterns that fill the gaps. I try to apply that to my story. The medallion is my family, the small patterns around the medallion is what happened to us.

Has the book chased away your demons?

A huge amount, like 55% but I am still dealing with 45%. A few nights ago I saw what was happening in Syria, there was a graphic scene, a rocket landed. Something like that brings a lot of memories back. Then I have to deal with it for a few days and get it out of me: I keep myself busy, exercising, gardening, designing carpets.

15 June 2013

Ralph Steadman, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 8, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

“If you’re not provocative what’s the point?”

You wouldn’t know it’s Ralph Steadman’s house. No trademark paint spatterings across the substantial Victorian frontage or wide Kent lawn. Only a wheeled sculpture in the drive and an ‘America The Beautiful’ doorbell give clues. Steadman’s wife Anna, a quiet protective presence around him, leads me in.

Steadman is in the kitchen, cheery, gnome-like, on his cap a badge: Sheriff’s Department, Pitkin County (his late friend Hunter S. Thompson’s home ground). Prints of reptilian Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas barflies, and valley vineyards from The Grapes Of Ralph, decorate the walls.

Steadman has been vitally diverse: visceral gonzo journalism with Thompson; Lewis Carroll, Orwell and Flann O’Brien illustrations; biographies of da Vinci, Freud and God; from the 1950s to 80s political, often acid, cartoons; children’s books, wine books.

Now there is Extinct Boids. The book began when film maker Ceri Levy asked Steadman for a painting for an exhibition on extinct birds. Over 100 followed, lush, real birds and imaginary, comic ones, annotated in the book by the e-mails and calls that flew between Steadman and Levy.

We sit by the Aga, Steadman laughing often, patting the breakfast bar to emphasise points. His eyes search mine from inside big glasses, checking he’s understood.

Born in 1936, he was raised in Wallasey and North Wales. After Abergele Grammar School came a De Havilland Aircraft Company apprenticeship. Hating factory life, he left and worked at Woolworth’s. His old, tyrannical Headmaster saw him sweeping out the shop. “He said, ‘You could have been at De Havilland. Instead what have you  done? You’ve ruined your life.’ I felt ashamed.”

But Steadman’s parents, a commercial traveller and shopgirl frustrated by their jobs, encouraged him to find fulfilment. He loved drawing, so they paid £17 for  an art correspondence course and in 1956 Steadman’s first cartoon was published (on Suez). By the early sixties his work was in Punch, Private Eye and the national press. His old political cartoons – like Harold Wilson as da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Edward Heath as Mona Lisa, a frothing Thatcher – still startle. Why did he stop?

“I began to think drawing politicians was total bullshit. I’d rather draw inanimate objects or birds, there is something more honest about them. I like the idea of a beak, it’s expressive, like putting a big nose on a cartoon face.”

Why Boid’s invented birds?

“I could have gone on finding extinct birds. But I thought, ‘It’s like telling the same joke over and over. How can I change it slightly? How can I undermine the thing and do silly instead of serious?’”

By undermining it, was he treating the book like gonzo journalism where –

“Yes, you become part of the story.”

He rolls cigarettes as he talks (a baritone, Merseyside-Welsh accent) leaving them half-smoked on the bar, never inhaling. His Boid paintings, he tells me, were never pencilled or planned beforehand. “That is the point, the white sheet of paper, anything could be on there. Whack it with a blob of ink, then, ‘Ah there’s something, a beak’. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s got to surprise me. If I surprise myself I might surprise someone else.”

It is a benign book: would he have done a harsher Boids 30 years ago?

“You might have something. I’m a gentle person, I’m not a vicious, savage person. I just can’t stand unpleasant people. So I made my drawings unpleasant, if they were about unpleasant people.”

Steadman’s jokiness disappears. He ponders his career, the gentle-unpleasant paradox.

“I found myself between the devil and the deep blue sea. And I had to find my own way through, and I have, the best way I can. And I don’t like getting older, it’s bloody awful. That’s another thing about the devil and the deep blue, life and death. I’ve always said, ‘When I die I don’t want to know about it’. I don’t want nursing homes and the rest.”

He talks about Thompson’s 2005 suicide. “Hunter could not take that. He’d had a hip replacement, he could hardly walk. He said to me once ‘I would feel real trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment’. And I feel rather the same.” He brightens up. “Except I haven’t got the 22 fully loaded guns he used to keep. He was a central part of my life, he gave my work a kudos in America.”

Steadman unzips his cardigan to show a pendant from gonzo days: a little head Thompson gave him, like a pinched Easter Island Statue.

“He said, ‘Wear this Ralph, it will ward off evil spirits’.”

Has it worked?

He laughs. “I don’t know, you’ve just arrived. I’m glad it [their collaboration] happened, it structured my life. I wasn’t a lone figure.”

Steadman has called himself an outsider. Is that through choice?

“I don’t feel clubby. I’m a member of the Chelsea Arts Club but don’t go very often, I don’t like the idea of exclusivity. My exclusivity if you like, is my way of doing things.”

He flicks through Extinct Boids. “This is what I like, making up little fellahs, the Orange-Beaked Mwit, the Needless Smut. Ceri said, ‘We don’t want any needless smut in this book’. I thought ‘Ooo!’ ”

As a young cartoonist, he’d go sketching at the V&A. The museum’s National Art Library now holds 32 different Steadman books. When I tell him, he seems almost puzzled. “Have they really? That’s extraordinary.” He makes an excuse, as if his work wasn’t worthy. “Maybe they know I learnt to draw there.”

And Steadman is stubbornly modest. For No Good Reason, a documentary of his life narrated by Johnny Depp, premiers this month at the London Film Festival, he has an honorary doctorate from the University of Kent, awards. Yet even in Steadman’s book Gonzo: The Art, an overview of some of his most famous images, he writes “I dedicate this book to failure”. Why? Hasn’t his work nudged consciences, moved people?

“I don’t know, it depends really.” He changes the subject, has to be drawn back, then says, “I have changed the world, the world is worse than when I started.”

Maybe it would have been even worse without him? “Now you’re trying to catch me out.” He laughs. “So, that’s how I think of failure.” Then, suddenly angry, “It’s not right. There’s too many bloody big greedy heads around.”

But Steadman is, indeed, a gentle person. Why is that often missing from his work?

“This desire to interest myself, to be provocative. If you’re not provocative what’s the point?”

Why does he want to provoke?

He pauses. “Maybe being shoved around in school, bullied. There’s a school photograph from 1947. If you look along the rows my head’s like that.” He bows his face, hiding it. “I didn’t want my photograph taken.”

Why not? “I don’t know. That is the mystery, I provoke. Maybe, unless I do that,” he bows his face, “I just become jolly and popular, or want to be popular. And I probably wouldn’t be so-“

Creative? “Or provocatively so. Which is what I try to be. It is a bit of problem that.”

13 October 2012

Jack Straw, A Walk With The FT, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 8, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

“I never wanted to talk about religion while I was a minister because if politicians start talking about their faith in the United Kingdom, people start counting the spoons.”

In 1652 an itinerant preacher named George Fox wrote in his journal that “I spyed a great high hill caled pendle hill & I went on ye toppe of it with much adoe Itt was soe steepe”. Once at that summit, Fox experienced a vision of “a great people” so intense that it inspired him to found the Quakers. But Pendle was already famous, or infamous, for its witch trial of 1612 that ended with the execution of 10 people.

Four hundred years later, on a frozen Lancashire morning, Jack Straw strides chirpily out from the village of Barley. The former home secretary, foreign secretary (his 2001-2006 term included the Iraq war) and lord chancellor has been MP for Blackburn, further down the Calder Valley, since 1979.

Straw has climbed Pendle’s 1,827ft often. It rises gently from Barley then sharply, an isolated hill of forceful lines. We crunch past cottages. Does he, I ask, find walking therapeutic? “I find walking in hills therapeutic, and quite spiritual. I don’t want to sound pompous, but communing with nature, marvelling at what the Almighty, or whoever it was, has produced.”

Straw, who was born in Essex, considers himself “an adopted Lancastrian” and this landscape helps him define its people. “Pendle is not a spectacular peak and it symbolises for me the stoicism of people in East Lancashire, the lack of showiness.”

We turn up an icy footpath, criss-cross a stream, pass farms sheltered by folds and trees. Pendle looms. Straw dabbled with pacifist Quakerism as a schoolboy and his parents were pacifists. Was he struck by those ironies in the Iraq war?

“Very much. But because I did have pacifist parents and I’d been on CND marches, I had thought about whether I was a pacifist probably more than many people.”

Straw remains convinced of the war’s legality but also that entering it was a moral act: “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been in favour of it. What subsequently was discovered, the absence of WMD, led to a view it was an abjectly amoral act. That wasn’t true: everyone, from and including Tony [Blair] downwards, went into it with a very heavy heart.” (In his recent autobiography, Last Man Standing, Straw writes: “We made a decision based on what we believed to be the case at the time”, and says that if he’d known beforehand that there were no WMD, he would have opposed war.)

Moorland replaces pasture as we pant up The Steps, a diagonal “soe steepe” stone path to Pendle’s summit. At the windy top we search for Fox’s (aka Robin Hood’s) Well, where, it is said, a weary George Fox drank. We find it: a spring tripping downslope and, in the hillside, a modern manhole over a cement well and steel tankard. The water tastes suitably pure.

In his book, Straw recalls that he prayed war would be averted. “It was formal prayer as well as a frame of mind, because I am an Anglican and a churchgoer. I never wanted to talk about religion while I was a minister because if politicians start talking about their faith in the United Kingdom, people start counting the spoons.”

He also writes that he had psychoanalysis in the 1980s and still has occasional sessions. Did the pressure of the Iraq war lead him to his psychoanalyst? “I may have seen him once. [I handled the pressure] mainly by going to church, and lots of gym.”

We cross Pendle’s domed, mile-wide plateau, its peat surface cracking with ice. Hills jumble horizons – the Yorkshire Dales, Lancashire’s Bowland and Rossendale fells. To the west, the Irish Sea. Straw munches a Mars Bar, companionable, chatty, but half his words lost in the wind.

Talking is easier as we pick our way down Boar Clough, treading carefully around its stream, and the sensitivities of immigration and integration: according to the 2011 census, 27 per cent of Blackburn’s population are Muslim. Earlier in 2012 Straw had attended the opening of St Silas’s, a new primary school in his constituency: “This is an ordinary Church of England school and about 95 per cent of the kids are Muslim. I’ve never had a single complaint from Muslim parents about the vicar being on the governing body, to the contrary.”

Because believers of different faiths feel an affinity to other believers? “Yes, and I think aggressive atheists are contemptuous of those who have faith. OK, there is a scientific explanation for what Pendle Hill is doing here. But is there a non-metaphysical explanation for the beauty of what we are seeing? There may be but I’ve never discovered it. It’s a beauty beyond reason, it is metaphysical.”

Spence Moor towers ahead. What about the volcanic anger of some Muslims over issues such as The Satanic Verses and the veil? “It’s very difficult because it is a phenomenon of Islam today that some Muslims feel their faith in a very violent way. It is reminiscent of periods in European history, bearing in mind we’re here on Pendle Hill [of the witch trial]. When people have ranted at me about something I’ve said that is ‘anti-Islam’ – which is absolute balls – I’ve said, ‘In which country in the world would you be better able to practise your religion and bring up your family in peace? Think about that.’ Most of them understand.”

Boar Clough joins Ogden Clough, and we follow it past Pendle’s sprawling moors. In the distance, beyond a hillock confettied with sheep, Burnley. Straw would be there the following day, watching Blackburn Rovers draw with their rivals. Football, and Rovers, have been important for Jack Straw, father. “It gave my children a chance to see their dad being a dad, and nothing else, every other Saturday.”

We pass the peat-black Upper Ogden Reservoir, turn into Fell Wood’s dark green cloisters. As we come out into rough, sunny fields, Straw eulogises one of Blackburn’s famous sons. “Wainwright went to the Lake District and couldn’t believe that beautiful area could exist alongside areas like Blackburn, which were literally dark satanic mills. For him, going up fells was a spiritual experience.”

We search for the spiritual at Newchurch-in-Pendle: a small blue window in the village church tower representing God’s all-seeing eye. Straw has a quick look, then: “Can we go for grub now?”

On the way to “Eye of Newt” (gammon, egg and chips) from the Pendle Inn’s menu at Barley, he considers the following day’s match, and his fellow Rovers fans. “You’ll be watching a game against a team from the south, and spontaneously the Blackburn crowd will chant anti-Burnley songs. It’s about the other, isn’t it?”

5 January 2013

Tom Courtenay and Ronald Harwood, The Daily Telegraph

Posted on February 8, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

‘When I say Harwood and Courtenay have had amazing careers, they say, in unison, “It doesn’t feel like an amazing career”.’

“Is that Tom?” Sir Ronald Harwood calls to Sir Tom Courtenay from the library of The Covent Garden Hotel. Courtenay enters and the friends of 52 years hug. Writer and actor settle in armchairs, Harwood, 78, calm and dapper, Courtenay, 75, nervier and casual.

Harwood is a master of searching, thoughtful screen adaptations, like Taking Sides, The Dresser (both from plays of his), The Diving Bell And The Butterfly and his Oscar-winning The Pianist. Courtenay jumped from RADA to a BAFTA in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, and ever since has brought beguiling intensity to films and plays, from Dr. Zhivago to Last Orders, The Norman Conquests to Moscow Stations.

Their work together includes Private Potter, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, The Dresser and now, Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, adapted by Harwood from his play of the same name. A comedy-drama, it centres on four retired opera singers – Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly – soul mates defying age.

Harwood and Courtenay’s first encounter, in 1960, was disastrous. Caspar Wrede, the late film director, wanted Courtenay for Private Potter, Harwood’s adaptation of Wrede’s play. They all met in the Savile Club. Courtenay was suffering, from bad dental work and intimidated by the daunting surroundings.

“I said to Caspar afterwards,” Harwood relates “‘I’ve been in the theatre seven years, I know a thing or two. This boy can’t act.’”

Harwood and Courtenay fall about laughing. They do often, and finish each others sentences and joke: Courtenay says he was recently “Ommidged” [Homaged] at the Dinard Film Festival. “Ohmaahhjed” pronounces Harwood. “Ommidged” repeats Courtenay.

Wrede, who later directed Denisovich, didn’t just start their friendship. “He was the biggest influence on my life,” says Courtenay. “And a very great influence on mine,” adds Harwood.

“He encouraged you to write, didn’t he?” says Courtenay. “Because of him I went to [theatre in] Manchester. He knew I was desperate to get on the boards and learn.”

Harwood still feels, primarily, that he is a theatre writer. “But David Hare said to me ‘The smart thing now is to be a screenwriter.’”

“You get more money” says Courtenay.

“That’s true. I financed my early plays by writing films.”

“Perversely I now prefer film” says Courtenay. “What I couldn’t bear was waiting [between takes].” Cinema’s global reach stunned the young actor. “On Zhivago it never occurred to me how worldwide it was.”

“Marvellous performance,” says Harwood. “I watched it the other day.”

“I just stood on the back of a train, waiting for David Lean to decide what I should wear,” says Courtenay.

Through Harwood, Courtenay met his second wife, Isabel, stage manager of  The Dresser. “She used to be crying, during rehearsal,” says Courtenay. “I thought, ‘Yes, I suppose I am very touching’. In fact she was trying out contact lenses.”

Courtenay once wrote that he acts with his emotions not intellect, and now says, diffidently. “It’s difficult to do it if you don’t have some feeling, even to be funny. You’ve got to be wound up in some way.”

“We both have an interest in the world of feeling,” says Harwood. “We talk about it a lot and the things we are drawn to.” On working together, he says “There is a certain trust involved, I know Tom is going to do his best.”

Courtenay says the character of Reggie in Quartet appealed to him because “It’s full of feeling, artistic aspiration.” He proclaims with faux grandeur: “The whole thing was my idea. I said to Isabel, ‘Shall I phone Ronnie and suggest he does a screenplay of Quartet?’”

Why did he?

“Well there was a part for me.” Hoots. “I thought it would be nice to be in a film, I’d rather retreated from that. I don’t think I was always helpful to myself in the things I had declined.”

“Never regret, you can’t regret” says Harwood.

“But it’s human nature, The Road Not Taken.”

Performers like Quartet’s characters captivate Harwood. “Their careers are over so soon: singers, ballet dancers, athletes. I became friends with Denis Compton and took him into the Garrick Club. He was on two sticks, the greatest batsman I ever saw, and he hobbled up those steps. I was fascinated by that dying fall, keeping life going. It must be hard, it is hard.”

He says friendship is at the heart of Quartet, film and play. “Why do they want to be friends after working together? That is how Tom and I became friends. It need not be spoken but there is a profound emotional bond if you’ve done something together, especially something successful. Isn’t that true?” His friend nods emphatically.

Courtenay’s portrayal of wounded, hopeful Reggie does succeed. “But do you know what Dustin used to say?” asks the actor. “ ‘Do nothing.’”

And there was much waiting. “‘Oh not another f—— take Dustin?’ ‘I know, acting in movies is a bitch’. [Hoffman would reply] He was unique, a little life force. And the worse it got, the more behind it got, the more he’d joke.”

Courtenay praises Hoffman’s direction. Hoffman has said the cast made directing easy. When I mention this, Courtenay looks away, mumbles, “Well he thought we could do it, you know, and he was full of suggestions.”

And when I say Harwood and Courtenay have had amazing careers, they say, in unison, without false modesty, “It doesn’t feel like an amazing career”. Courtenay quotes Shakespeare, Sonnet 94: “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet/ But to itself it only live and die”

They will admit to having enjoyed their time together launching Quartet.

“This has been lovely the last month,” says Courtenay. “And because Ronnie’s wife’s been ill, we’ve spoken more.”

“They’ve been wonderful to me, Maggie and Tom and Isabel.”

“He’s taken us out but thankfully he’s terribly rich.”

“This is true,” deadpans Harwood. “Your turn tomorrow.”

“My go tomorrow.”

“They’ve been lovely to me, real friendship,” says Harwood.

And while Wrede’s Denisovich is Harwood and Courtenay’s favourite work together, Courtenay says “Quartet has the advantage of us all being alive, and still going.”

21 December 2012

Dr. Rafia Ghubash, Economist.com

Posted on February 8, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

‘Don’t think the government or a man or your husband will give you a right. It’s inside you, just practise it.’

The profile of Arab women is rising, challenging the world’s preconceptions of a patriarchal Middle East. Some of the women are outsiders, like the headscarved protestors of the Arab Spring or Saudi Arabia’s Manal al-Sharif, who lost her job for driving a car and posting a video of it on Youtube. Some are insiders, like Qatari art patron Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani and globetrotting UAE Minister of Foreign Trade Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi. And now comes the Middle East’s first women’s museum.

The Women’s Museum of the United Arab Emirates is the creation of Dubai’s Professor Rafia Obaid Ghubash, an academic, psychiatrist and former President of the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. Her aim is to educate visitors – both local and foreign – that Emirati women enjoyed more power and influence historically than is recognised, and to re-connect the modern Emirates with its past and tradition.

But the museum’s three airy storeys are determinedly contemporary: traditional jewellery hangs suspended in minimalist cases; material wraps a towering, stylised mannequin; worn housework tools juxtapose with work by modern female Emirati artists. Alongside the art and artefacts are permanent exhibitions about Sheikhas operating as peace makers and dynastic linchpins; the woman poet Ousha Bint Khalifa (“When you say Shakespeare, we would say Ousha Bint Khalifa” says Dr. Ghubash); women pioneers in education and business.

The museum’s location and financing are telling. Ghubash declined a free site in Bastakya, an official Dubai heritage district. Instead she bought one in Deira, Dubai’s old nexus of souks, selling off commercial property she owned to finance it, at a cost of around $4m. (She will seek sponsors for future projects and exhibitions.)

Ghubash’s ideas are rooted in personal history. Her mother divorced her husband, ran a shop in Deira from the 1950s and instilled in Ghubash the belief that womanhood need not equal subservience.

She spoke in the museum to the sound of saws and final touches, her i-phone earphones threading through her fingers like worry beads.

“My mother said ‘You have to learn that your rights are born with you. Don’t think the government or a man or your husband will give you a right. It’s inside you, just practise it’. We came from a neighbourhood where the women were involved in trading, property. So I want to show how our hidden women were so strong and empowered.”

Ghubash asks, particularly of Dubai’s near-famine years in World War Two, and the six months of every year when men sailed with the pearl-fishing fleet, “Who was running society? The man took one aspect, the financial. The woman took so many aspects. Just recently you can see us but we were behind the door all the time.”

For Dr. Ghubash the appreciation of history and tradition in rapidly developed societies like the UAE isn’t just good cross-generational manners, it’s mentally healthy. “That was my Phd. Those who keep their tradition in dealing with modernity, will be more healthy than those who take out their tradition. Globalisation is an umbrella to use in part of your life but not all of your life.”

She sees dual attitudes to women in the Arab tradition. “When I was running the University, journalists were asking me, ‘Is it difficult to be a woman and a President?’ I said ‘It is the easiest point because our culture appreciates strong women’. Part of the tradition is kind to women. But part is very negative. Those who are not educated just utilise the negative part.”

Female UAE graduates now outnumber males 2:1. Ghubash wants to reach those young women, arguing their sophistication can distances them from the once-hidden generation. “Most of them communicate in English. When you sit in a family where the grandmother can’t understand, it is hurting. OK, they are educated, they become powerful, you see them everywhere but there is something missing.”

Another distance Ghubash wants to close is between non-Arabs and locals. “Foreigners are the majority here. They know nothing about our society. You live with us and you don’t know us.”

After visiting the museum, Ghubash hopes, “Tourists [and expats] will say, ‘O there were women in politics, there were women in education’. So we will change the attitude of people towards us. Then the young generation, ‘Well we have something to be proud of in our past’. It starts to give a message: everything from your past is important to you.”

July 2012

Marina Lewycka, A Walk With The FT, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 7, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

“I’d more or less given up and giving up took the anxiety out of it. I no longer had this idea of being an author with a capital A.”

The sky over Stanage Edge is cloudless. A ribbed jet trail mirrors the Edge’s uneven, four mile cliff line. Downslope, Marina Lewycka arrives in the Dennis Knoll car park.

She used to walk in the Peak District every weekend but then success intervened. In 2005 her first published novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, came out and, at 58, the Sheffield Hallam University lecturer became a million-selling novelist. Two Caravans, We Are All Made of Glue, and now Various Pets Alive and Dead followed, but so have publicity tours, literary festivals, less walking time.

In the car park, Lewycka offers me half her prawn sandwich then explains the difference between this, north Derbyshire’s Dark Peak, and south Derbyshire’s White Peak. “Up here it’s millstone grit, it is dark and sinister; down there it’s chalk, limestone, like white bones in the earth.”

We leave on a sandy track to begin one of her favourite walks: from the moorland of Stanage Edge to the valley village of Hathersage, taking in an 18th-century packhorse trail, North Lees Hall (Charlotte Brontë’s inspiration for the Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre), the grave of Little John, he of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, and afternoon tea.

The track curves between bracken, heather and shed-sized boulders, to cliffs like half-formed Easter Island statues. Walking helps Lewycka’s writing. “It’s time to mull things over in my head or try out conversations and bring disconnected bits of plot together.”

It’s hot. 4×4 tracks mark the ground. “You come for a day of soul-building, and they are in a convoy, lumbering around. Sometimes I shout at them. They treat me as a mad woman, best ignored.”

We crest the Edge, absorb the view, south through mist to Hathersage and west to Winhill (we decide after wind-battered map reading). The Packhorse Trail’s doglegs take us down to rest by a birch wood. Marina offers me a prawn sandwich again, only stopping when I accept a banana.

What builds her soul here? “The grandness of the landscapes, the – ” She is interrupted by a dog walker’s hard-eyed bull terrier, which sniffs her sandwich. Lewycka gives it a cheery pat and genial “Off you go!”

“When you worry about reviews or publications, whether you’ve said the right thing, you come here and everything seems insignificant. It’s almost like a meditation to sit still and go through your senses.” Metal clinks from climbers on the cliffs. “The texture of the rock and the air. How shadows are picked out.”

Senses sharpened, the Packhorse Trail leads us down valley. Hedges replace drystone walls; grass replaces heather. North Lees Hall, the same grey millstone grit as the Edge, emerges square from trees, a blunt tower on top. It was built by Catholic landowners, the Eyres. Lewycka looks around for their ruined chapel, burnt in the Reformation. No ruin, or people, in sight, we approach the heavy wooden door of the Hall (now a holiday let).

She whispers, “If you wanted to be brave you could stand on a chair and peer through a window.” Wobbling on a garden chair, I see comfy holiday fittings; no Jane, Rochester or mad first wife. Lewycka contemplates the tower, and Charlotte Bronte’s mind. “Imagine seeing that and thinking, ‘Ahh: mad woman, locked up, sets the whole place on fire’.”

The very English valley closes in towards Hathersage. Does Lewycka, born in a German camp to Ukrainian refugees, value life here more than the native-born? “It’s true, you look at things and you look for things. Being an immigrant, you want to learn to fit in, so it makes you very observant.”

In the graveyard of Hathersage parish church we stop. “Now this is Little John’s Grave, notable above all for the parking meter, for people to make donations.” It stands next to an eleven foot grave, whose headstone states Little John died in a nearby cottage. “I’m sure it’s mainly here for the tourists.”

Heading for tea and talking religion, we pass the Georgian vicarage where Charlotte Bronte stayed (between inspiring walks). “If I was anything, I’d be a Quaker. When you are in a landscape like this it does make me think of the Quaker saying, ‘There is that of God in everyone and also that of God in everything’”.

Like the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins?

“I adore Hopkins. But do you know the Mystic Henry Vaughan? ‘I saw Eternity the other night/ Like a great ring of pure and endless light…’” Energized, her slight Yorkshire accent strengthens “…Like a vast shadow moved; in which the world/ And all her train were hurled.’”

We sit by the gnomes in the garden of Cintra’s Tea Room. The success of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian surprised her. “I’d more or less given up and giving up took the anxiety out of it. I wrote a more light-hearted book than before. I no longer had this idea of being an author with a capital A.”

We take Baulk Lane back up the valley, birdsong replacing traffic. Literary life has drawbacks: A Short History’s portrayal of two sisters increased the distance between Lewycka and hers. “It’s very difficult. It’s terrible curse being a friend or family member of an author because you inevitably draw on your own life, even without realising you are doing it.”

And the literary festivals that keep her from the Peaks can be boring. “But you get to hang out with writers because otherwise, writing, you can be on your own for hours and hours, in your own head, which isn’t good.”

The sun is low as we enter The Warren wood, the air cool. We take stepping stones wide as kitchen tables across Hood Brook. “This is almost my favourite part of the walk. This and up here, these industrial remains.” She leads up stone steps to a long dark mill pond crowded by trees. “This is a magical spot. See how still it is. How it was used in industrial life I have no idea. I’m not sure anyone does. It makes you realise industry is quite ephemeral.” Industrial decline haunts Lewycka’s new book too, but of a contemporary kind. “It’s gone but in a much uglier way.”

Drystone walls replace hedges. Stanage Edge looms, still in sun. We climb the final stile. “Nothing much else matters here. It’s those lovely lines of Wordsworth, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/ With rocks, and stones, and trees.” That’s a good way to finish.”

23 March 2012

Chade-Meng Tan, Economist.com

Posted on February 7, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

“It was summer, I was taking a walk outside and it came to me, ‘OK, I’m going to dedicate my life to world peace’.”

Google was only two years old when Chade-Meng Tan, a Singapore-born software engineer, joined in 2000. He earned the nickname “Google’s Jolly Good Fellow” after becoming the unofficial greeter at its Mountain View headquarters in California, always photographed smiling alongside famous visitors. The nickname now adorns his business cards.

A committed Buddhist, Mr Tan used his 20% Time – the portion of working hours Google encourages employees to spend on tangential projects – to devise Search Inside Yourself (SIY), a meditation programme he has been teaching at the company since 2007. In a new book, called Search Inside Yourself, endorsed by the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra and packaged in Google colours and typeface, Mr Tan promises SIY will “increase productivity, creativity and happiness”.

The programme involves mastering one’s feelings to develop greater compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence. Mr Tan believes a world of SIY users will be a peaceful one, and he sees the book (with Google’s global ubiquity behind it) as a step towards achieving this.

Mr. Tan laughs a lot for a man of serious purpose. He spoke to The Economist between chuckles from his office, with its view of San Francisco Bay, on “another perfect day in paradise”.

How many people worked at Google when you joined?

About 100 and we were all friends. When you are small and unprofitable your mindset is different, there is a feeling of a closed tribe. You see each other in hallways, it’s easy to have random conversations, it’s productive.

Why all the photographs with famous visitors?

To impress my Mum. Al Gore was in the building, I had to get a picture to show Mum, right? Then Jimmy Carter visited. It became a tradition.

Is there an element of playing the clown and enjoying the limelight?

If it’s funny, it’s enough reason to do anything. Also I discovered that by doing that I had access to people, people would talk to me. It was quite useful.

How long have you wanted to create world peace?

In retrospect, my entire life. It became solid in 2003. It was summer, I was taking a walk outside and it came to me. “OK, I’m going to dedicate my life to world peace”. I never turned back.

Search Inside Yourself is geared towards corporate life. What about the billions on earth who don’t have the life choices the book implies?

A lot of things in Search Inside Yourself are universal. For example attention training, creating the conditions for inner calm. They have even tried [them] in prisons and it has done wonders for prisoners. But I geared it towards the rich, corporate world, and the reason is leverage. If I can turn the most powerful part of the world into a land of wisdom and compassion, it’s going to change the rest of the world.

The book explains how empathy and compassion can help your career. Doesn’t that taint the altruistic ideals behind such traits?

If you had to pick between being moral and successful, obviously I choose to be moral. However if you can choose both, will you choose both? I’d say definitely.

But you are talking about them as a means to success.

There is a selfish element, in salary and so on, but there is also a greater good component: I’m doing this for my team, for the world or whatever. Compassion is so pure I don’t think there is any way to taint it.

You are taking no money from this book. What will profits go on?

The first tranche is going to a non-profit body, SIYLI, pronounced ‘Silly’. SIYLI [ Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute] is going to bring emotional intelligence to the world. If I have money after that, which is unlikely, I want to create technologies to accelerate progress in [measuring] meditation. Beginners keep asking, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ They can’t look into my mind and compare. So an objective, quantifiable way of doing this, is going to help a lot.

Isn’t meditation about qualitative not quantitative results?

But it is also quantifiable. In people with high emotional intelligence the left prefrontal cortex [associated with positive emotions] is very active. Can we measure this without an FMRI scanner which costs millions of dollars? Person to person differences, can we adjust for that?

The book encourages people to pause and consider their emotions. Doesn’t that remove spontaneity and honest reactions from life?

I think it is the reverse. If a pond is disturbed, you throw a stone in, you see the ripples but they are not very clear, they are obscured by the other waves. If the pond is very calm, you throw a stone in, you can see the ripples very clearly. If the mind is calm, your spontaneity and honest thoughts appear. You become more spontaneous.

What is your role at Google now?

I’m semi retired. The joke, which is unfortunately true, is I only work 40 hours a week. I run a Search Inside Yourself class, I’m playing the role of village elder. A good analogy is Yoda, the old man who mostly says wise things, ungrammatical, shows you how to use the force.

What makes you angry?

Injustice. Evil.

How about dropping something on your foot?

They make me annoyed. Annoyed but laughing inside.

Does your constant cheerfulness ever get too much, for you or others?

Not yet. I’m not always cheerful. If people tell me what they are going through, I get very sad.

Do people at Google come to you with their problems?

Yes, a lot.

Can that be a burden?

It is an opportunity to serve. I’m just me, right? Wow, if I can help people, that’s the least I can do.

Do you ever think ‘I should have been a monk’?

I think I chose this life. We all have different ways of serving people. This niche had to be occupied and I’m the one, I guess.

August 2012

Italian streetlife, London EC1, Time Out

Posted on February 7, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

‘Drinkers by The Betsey Trotwood pub heckle as Marco Manzi nails Christ to the cross, “Oi! No more!” “Stop, now!”’

At lunchtime on Saturday, 16 July 2011, Santa Lucia, Santa Rita, San Michele and Sant’ Antonio already wait on the marbled altar of St. Peter’s Italian Church, Clerkenwell Road.

The next day these statues and more will be carried in the Procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, spaced among parading Italian Associations, children in first communion finery, flags, banners, and floats and walking tableaux of biblical scenes, like Moses receiving the Commandments and Christ being nailed to the cross.

They will follow a cordoned triangle – Clerkenwell Road, Rosebery Avenue, Farringdon Road. Inside it, on Warner Street, will be an Italian fete, a Sagra.

The elegant St. Peter’s opened in 1863, in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy. The Procession, a recreation of homeland rituals, probably started in 1883 (no one is sure). Clerkenwell’s Little Italy has gone but Italian expats and Anglo-Italians crowd St. Peter’s for Sunday mass. More return for landmarks like Christmas and Easter, christenings and weddings, and the Procession. (15 July, this year.)

Round the corner from St. Peter’s on Back Hill’s cobbled slope, kagooled volunteers from across London work in the rain. A dull Citroen van disappears under panels. Eight big, flat-bed vans are being turned with planks and poles into floats.

The parish priest Fr Carmelo, white haired in a black hoddie, encourages the workers. Many, including Luciano Manzi, who is sparing time from running his City coffee shops, are 40-year Procession veterans. “I met my wife doing this procession. The Italian church, it’s like going to Italy and feeling you are part of something.”

Giuseppe Ditanna, a stocky, pony-tailed expat regular at St. Peter’s for 30 years, breaks from work. “Tomorrow they put more flowers, more decoration and painting. It’s going to be fantastic.”

Volunteers nip in and out of Back Hill’s labyrinthine parish offices. Inside, past a dining room loaded with coffee and sponge fingers, past Fr. Carmelo’s small office, down a wide corridor, in a make up room of costume rails and prop boxes, stands Peter Bertoncini, the Procession’s designer/costumier/beloved maestro.

Around him, his band of aproned assistants, like Lizzie Evans (nee Giacon), Paula Bolognini and Sylvia Rapacioli. Peter is calmly brisk, “Got silver wings…three rosaries for the children…where’s the drape?” They work from blue-biroed lists of props and parishioner-actors for the floats and tableaux: ‘Angel = Emma/Lily’ ‘Christ carrying the cross = Mario’.

What, I ask Sylvia as she sews, keeps them returning for the Procession? It is the coupling of homeland and religion: “It can be very, very powerful. You can’t touch it. You can’t get hold of it. But that’s human nature, isn’t it?”

The band move to the corridor. Peter noisily staple-guns fabric to a backdrop. There is a problem: the Christ to lead the first communicants is injured. “I wouldn’t mind (THWOCK!) but I’ve made him a new costume because he’s so (THWOCK!) tall. It’s finding a guy.” He picks Marco, Lizzie’s 6’1”son, who passes through in float-building overalls.

Lizzie: You’re going to be Christ. Have you got any flip flops or sandals?

Marco (non plussed): I’m an Evangelist.

Lizzie: Christ has hurt his foot. Have you got any flip flops?

Sunday morning is bright; the afternoon torrential. Plastic sheets shroud finished floats on Back Hill. Still, the Procession starts at 3.30, always, and the corridor throngs with Roman soldiers, tinselled angels and Magi.

Down in the Sagra, rain comes and goes but the crowd stays: suited old men, bella figura youth, children with Italy-shaped balloons. Bouncy Italian dance tunes from the PA fight with old friends reuniting loudly.

Beneath Rosebery Avenue bridge, veterans of the Alpini regiment in feathered caps run a coconut shy. Family teams man stripy-awninged stalls, selling wine from Emilia Romagna, polenta from Veneto, Calabrian aubergines, Sicilian cannoli, all proceeds to St. Peter’s. Giuseppe serves belly of pork at Sardinia’s stall.

In the make up room Peter waits. “The main characters apart from one are done.” Marco Evans walks in to a cheer.  In the corridor St. Peter and God watch the British Open on a big television. In the dining room a biblical crowd tuck into chicken legs and biscuits.

The jollity is deceptive. The Procession is both cultural celebration and act of religious devotion. Mario Zeppetelli sits quietly by the dining room door. He would, for the eighth year, play Christ carrying the Cross. “It is quite heavy. Once you start carrying it, and I’m out there on my own, dragging this thing, you get a feel of what [Christ’s Passion] might have been like.”

At 3.00 the actors start climbing onto floats or line up in side streets. Spectators fill the pavements outside St. Peter’s. At 3.10 thunder and lightening crack the sky. A boy shepherd shields his head with a toy lamb. Undaunted, as 3.30 approaches, floats trundle down Back Hill to line up on Clerkenwell Road.

Bishop Alan Hopes and Fr. Carmelo release doves. The crowd cheer. Peter fires a glitter gun, Vivaldi’s Gloria plays and the Procession rolls past the church: God, tunic sodden, staring Moses in the eye; the tiny, immaculate matriarchs of the Consorelle del Sacro Cuore; the Virgin Mary balancing bravely up ten steps on the Queen of Heaven float; the red waistcoated ladies of the Enfield Italian Association; Marco Evans leading the first communicants, lime green flip flops barely visible.

The sun is out as the statue of Our Lady of Fatima tilts precariously through a red light onto Rosebery Avenue. Here the crowd thins. Mario stares ahead as he carries his cross uphill under the Avenue’s dripping trees, Giuseppe behind in Judaic robes. San Calogero’s statue rides on a red Fiat 500 past the watching firemen of Clerkenwell Station.

Farringdon Road has more spectators, including Sylvia, outside the old Guardian building. A first communicant drops her little Italian flag and covers her face in embarrassment. Anglo-Italian drinkers by The Betsey Trotwood pub heckle as Marco Manzi (Luciano’s son) nails Christ to the cross, “Oi! No more!” “Stop, now!”

The last float is the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, gliding on a royal blue float (the dull Citroen van). Behind walk 200 parishioners, all ages, reciting the rosary unwaveringly as they pass the Chatterbox Topless Bar.

They turn into Clerkenwell Road, halt outside St. Peter’s. More doves are freed. Ave Maria is sung. The Procession ends.

Giuseppe feels the weather thinned the crowds this year but still, “It’s fantastic!” He heads to help at the Sagra. Marco Evans, back in work clothes, helps dismantles the floats.

A man and a woman walk down the corridor, carrying Mario’s cross between them. Standing by storage alcoves, Peter calls “Right they can start bringing the floats in now”. Does he give the actors advice before the Procession? “They are all told – is that a backdrop? Right, goes here  – if it rains, carry on, keep in character. That’s all I ask. And they did. They did very good.”

The Sagra is still jumping, wine and cappuccino flow, the Alpine veterans sing, arms around each other, voices echoing round Rosebery Avenue bridge.

On Back Hill, the floats have been dismantled. Once again, they are just rented vans.

A shortened version of this article ran in Time Out, July 2012

‘The Forrests’, Emily Perkins, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 7, 2013 by admin Leave a comment

A backpacker Heathcliff, wielding charm rather than fists’

The Forrests is only Emily Perkins’ fourth novel in 14 years. Once again, it is worth the wait and once again Perkins is pushing herself as a writer.

Spiky, absurd humour tattooed her short story collection Not Her Real Name and her first novel, in 1998, Leave Before You Go. Her novels then became more serious: The New Girl studied raw, vulnerable adolescence; madness fractured a marriage in Novel About My Wife. In The Forrests, Perkins tackles a family’s progress from the 1960s to the 2030s, from childhood to senility, with no shortcut date headings or framing flashbacks, and does so superbly.

It opens in 1967, with the Forrests’ move from New York to New Zealand (Auckland, Perkins’ home city). The father, Frank, has high hopes of succeeding as a theatre director. He doesn’t. His wife Lee works at a deli, ekes out Frank’s meagre trust fund and sells off family heirlooms to feed the children. They are, in descending age, Michael, Eve, Dot and Ruth. Michael’s friend Daniel lives with the Forrests, sheltering from his broken home.

After three fruitless years, Frank tries his luck in New York and Lee temporarily moves the family into a “wimmin’s commune”. The children run wild but the sexual advances of an adult communard, Rena, destabilise Michael for life. Frank returns a sterner man but, luckless in New York and unwilling to take workaday work, his authority ebbs. Michael closes himself into his own dope-addled world. Frank inherits a pot of Forrest family fortune and returns to America to live in moneyed ease with Lee and young Ruth.

The Forrests becomes the story of Eve, Dot and Daniel finding their way alone, scraping through careers, unremembered at school reunions. Twisting through the sisters lives, Daniel disappears around the world, and then returns – still magnetic and enigmatic with “the terrifying agelessness of the constant traveller”.

He is Dorothy’s lover then, secretly, Eve’s, then, occasionally, Dorothy’s again. His bond to the family makes these relationships disturbingly close, obsessive and disruptive, like a backpacker Heathcliff wielding charm rather than fists. Both sisters marry and have children but are burdened by the hope of hearing from Daniel.

The story tightens its focus on Dot, struggling as marriage, family and motherhood swirl around her. “Adulthood was like this – your voice calm, your face normal, while inside white turmoil squirted, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.” Michael reappears, obese and paranoid; Ruth too, a corporate wife; Rena, hoping to make amends.

Perkins glides us through the decades with unobtrusive nods to disco, the Walkman, the internet, today’s recession and seamlessly into a future of battling gangs and receding pensions. This isn’t faultless. Dot appears prematurely decrepit at 50 (to this 50 year-old reviewer anyway) and becomes dotty too young. But Dot’s dotage, jumbled mind bemused by her body, memories and care home, is brilliantly done.

The Forrests is rich and its chapters so self-contained they could be read as 20 short stories. But pay attention: Perkins is concise and quietly allusive. Misread a sentence and you miss a jump in time. Pass over a dialogue comma and you won’t understand. Perkins makes us puzzle out the characters’ lives, because they are doing so too.

What defines The Forrests more though is the tapestry of description that startles on every page, the fine-stitched details of the family’s world that give the Forrests value and importance, and the novel a profound empathy.

2 June 2012

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