“By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” (Robert Frost)

Oh, the joys of mid-January.  The seemingly never-ending greyness of it all.  The lights of Christmas and resolutions of New Year have long faded and you’re back at work.  Work: the daily commute wedged into someone’s armpit, steam rising off everyone’s drizzle-soaked clothes; arriving at your office to realise your colleague has stolen your favourite coffee mug and still hasn’t eaten the unidentifiable gelatinous foodstuff they brought in from home 3 weeks ago; faux-friendly emails from your work-shy boss asking you for fourteen completed reports before the end of the day, signed off with an inappropriate and frankly borderline-sarcastic emoticon. If this is your experience take comfort from the fact that you are far from alone.  This week I’m looking at novels that deal with the daily grind of our work lives.

Firstly, Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971). Bukowski is one of the best-known beat generation authors, and Post Office was his first novel.  It’s a short work (160 pages in my edition) and details the insanity of working for the titular organisation with its impossible targets and low pay. Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego) suffers at the hands of his bullying supervisors, indifferent colleagues and the unpredictable public.  His hard-living ways do not anaesthetise the situation:

“Each route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them.  Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were ready for a rape, murder, dogs, or insanity of some sort.  The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets.  That was the only advantage they had – except knowing their case by heart.  It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, went to bed at 2am, rose at 4.30am after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.

One day I was out on the street and the route was going well, though it was a new one, and I thought, Jesus Christ, maybe for the first time in two years I’ll be able to eat lunch.”

Needless to say, he doesn’t get lunch.  Bukowski is great at describing the tedium of a job that holds no meaning (for him, my particular postie has been doing the job for 30 years this year and tells me he loves it for the most part), and the seediness of the life he lives and those who surround him.  But he tempers the tale with humour which stops the portrait being too relentlessly bleak:

“I picked my cap up out of the street, put it on my head.  Put the sack back onto the left side of my spine, started out again. 100 degrees.

I walked past one house and a woman ran out after me.

‘Mailman! Mailman!  Don’t you have a letter for me?’

‘Lady, if I didn’t put one in your box, that means you don’t have any mail.’

‘But I know you have a letter for me!’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because my sister phoned and said she was going to write me.’

‘Lady, I don’t have a letter for you.’

‘I know you have! I know you have! I know it’s there!’

She started to reach for a handful of letters.

‘DON’T TOUCH THE UNITED STATES MAILS, LADY!  THERE’S NOTHING THERE FOR YOU TODAY!’

I turned and walked off.

“I KNOW YOU HAVE MY LETTER!”

Another woman stood on her porch.

‘You’re late today.’

‘Yes, mam.’

‘Where’s my regular man today?’

‘He’s dying of cancer.’

‘Dying of cancer? Harold is dying of cancer?’

‘That’s right,’ I said.

I handed her mail to her.

‘BILLS!BILLS! BILLS!’ she screamed. ‘IS THAT ALL YOU CAN BRING ME? THESE BILLS?’

‘Yes, mam, that’s all I can bring you.’

I turned and walked on.”

Post Office is unrelenting in the cynical gaze it casts over tragi-comedy of the working day.  If you’re sick of your job, this is the novel for you.

Secondly, Year of the King by Antony Sher.  I’m going a bit off-piste here because this is a diary and not fiction, but Jeanette Winterson says there’s no such thing as autobiography, only art and lies, so I think this allows for admission into a blog about fiction.  (Confession: when I first thought of this blog post I was going to write about Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris as the second book, but I started it 3 weeks ago and I’m only 100 pages in.  It had cracking reviews so I’m surprised I’m not getting on with it.  If you’ve read it can you tell me, should I persevere or give up?) So, I chose Year of the King for this theme as it details a year in a working life, in this case one of the finest actors of his generation as he grapples with the eponymous role in Richard III.  If you love your work but worry constantly that you’re not good enough, this is the book for you.  It’s so reassuring to read how this incredible actor feels he struggles with the language of Shakespeare, and messes up his first reading in front of the rest of the cast.  Having admired so many of his accomplished performances, I found myself thinking really? Well, if Antony Sher struggles maybe I’m not doing so badly after all…

“‘Just read it,’ says Bill grinning.

‘ “Now is the winter of our discontent…”’

I read badly, rather monotonously or else I over-stress.  Mercifully Bill stops me after about ten lines and starts to pick at words and discuss meanings.

We have begun.”

Sher is a great writer (it’s something he’s done more and more of) and his style is easy to read yet vivid.

“Bill suggests running the scene ‘trying to be more bestial’.  The result is a disaster.  Behaviour not from the animal world but the world of pantomime.  Cackling laughter, food being thrown around, sinewy ‘wicked’ acting. Although I’m participating and probably responsible for some of the worst excesses, I can hardly bear to watch the others.  Have to bury my head on the crutches for much of the scene.”

Ah yes, the crutches.  If you don’t know, Sher performed the “bottled spider” role in crutches.  What’s so interesting is amongst all the self-doubt and creative process, are vacillations over the use of the crutches, which for the reader 30 years on is a source of amusement.  The play went down a storm, Sher’s performance was showered with praise, and the crutches became stuff of theatrical legend:

The book holds all the things you would expect in an actor’s diary: taking us though the research process, details of the politics of rehearsal, fond (and discreet) portraits of his fellow actors and theatre professionals (Michael Gambon in particular seems a large, hilarious personality).  But Sher offers much more, such as beautiful images of the surrounding environment:

“An oil slick on the river today, from the long weekend’s abuse.  In the morning sunshine it’s as if a rainbow has fallen in the water and is being gently rubbed against the bank, washed and cleaned until its transparent again.”

The diary is also filled with his brilliant drawings, such as this one of Olivier, whose filmed performance of Richard casts a long shadow:

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Year of the King has a lot to offer the great variety of readers (little – very little – joke there for any Shakespeare fans): if you’re interested in the acting process, in approaches to Shakespeare, in the realities of theatrical production, or in Antony Sher himself, you’ll find Year of the King a rewarding read.

To end, here is a clip to bring some joy & colour into these grey January days spent in dreary magnolia offices:

“I must have wanton Poets” (Edward II/Christopher Marlowe)

Oh dear, I’ve been very slack with regard to writing this blog lately.  I’ve been beavering away trying to prepare for my final year at uni, and have not managed my time properly – this does not bode well for the mania of finals.  Anyway, my pending exam failures aside,  I was wracking my brains trying to think of a theme for this post, when all I’ve been doing is studying.  Very dull, and does not make for lots of choices for a theme that relates to my life in any way.  But then I thought of something that happened recently and I want you stick with me when I tell you the theme of this post: its Renaissance theatre.  Wait!  For those of you groaning and having flashbacks to sweating over Shakespeare at school, let me say this: you were taught badly.  Renaissance drama can be the best drama there is, from a golden age of theatre when some of the greatest minds were so engaged with the art form they produced lively, innovative, downright entertaining plays.  Then generations of schoolchildren were tortured into trying to unpick it all bit by bit, whilst being told it was good for them.  I hope if that was your experience you’ll finish reading this post, and let me try and persuade you back into the theatre, because I love it.  The reason I’ve made it the theme of this post is because I went and saw Edward II at the National, and it was fantastic.  For those of you with ease of access to the South Bank, I highly recommend you try and catch it.  The production was so innovative and fresh (actors in the audience, multimedia approach, ad-libbing) but it still didn’t lose sight of Marlowe’s brilliant language.  Its iconoclastic approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it was one of the best adaptations I’ve seen.

So I thought I’d look at two more Renaissance plays, neither by Shakespeare, because there’s an abundance of stuff on him, no?  (This doesn’t mean I won’t opt to write a post on him at another time, he was a genius after all).  Firstly, Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.  I last saw this performed in 2011 at The Globe, and it was a great production.  I’m not always so keen on The Globe’s approach to things, but this worked well, and Arthur Darvill (Rory in Dr Who according to the excited audience members that surrounded me) was a perfect Mephistopheles.  Here’s the final scene from that production (filmed theatre is always a bit odd I think, and often does the production no justice, but hey ho):

Dr Faustus is about an academic who sells his soul to the devil, asking him to “Resolve me of all ambiguities”.  Ultimately however, Faustus does not use his devilish power to find the answers to anything, but instead uses his time to enjoy prestige and wealth.  This is the first time he and Mephistopheles (Lucifer’s servant) speak:

MEPH. Now, Faustus, what wouldst thou have me do?

FAUSTUS. I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,

To do whatever Faustus shall command,

Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,

Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.

 MEPH. I am a servant to great Lucifer,

 And may not follow thee without his leave:

 No more than he commands must we perform.

 FAUSTUS. Did not he charge thee to appear to me?

 MEPH. No, I came hither of mine own accord.

FAUSTUS. Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? speak.

MEPH. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;

For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

 Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

 We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul…

This first conversation shows so much about the rest of the play.  Firstly, Faustus is a pompous idiot.  He’s just muttered all these complex Latinate incantations, entirely unnecessarily.  When Mephistopheles arrives it’s because he was hanging around, and dropped in “of his own accord”.  Faustus has not conjured  Lucifer, who would not concern himself with such a weasel.  Faustus asks for silly things, the moon to drop, a servant to obey his commands. Secondly, he has no real understanding of what he’s done, it is Mephistopheles who knows the true price paid with his “glorious soul”.  This devil explains:

MEPH. Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,

Conspir’d against our God with Lucifer,

And are for ever damn’d with Lucifer.

FAUSTUS. Where are you damn’d?

MEPH. In hell.

FAUSTUS. How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?

MEPH. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:

Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,

In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

 O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,

 Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

That line: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it, to me is the killer line of the whole play.  It shows just how little Faustus understands of what he has forfeited, and makes Mephistopheles the most complex character in the play.  He is both malevolent, and deeply, tragically sad, a fallen angel.  It shows how the person you are enables the power you have, to create a heaven or hell of your own making.  Marlowe was a controversial figure in his time; a government informer claimed the playwright was an atheist, an extreme and dangerous view to hold in the late sixteenth century.  (The informer also claimed Marlowe said “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools”, a slightly less contentious view at the time).  Atheism was equated with immorality at the time, but I would argue Dr Faustus is a highly moral play whether or not you believe in God.  It asks the questions: what do you worship? and what price are you paying for that worship?  In this way, I would argue it still has plenty to say today, whether you are religious or not.  And if that all sounds a bit heavy, well, the full title is The Tragical History of Dr Faustus, but there are plenty of comic scenes and the play is so artfully written that you never feel like you’re being preached at.

Secondly, a comedy after all that tragedy, by Shakespeare’s frenemy, Ben Jonson: The Alchemist.  Jonson is rarely performed compared to his peers, and I think that’s a real shame.  This play is fast, frenetic, has plenty of physical and verbal comedy and is hugely entertaining.  It’s set in London during the plague, when all those who can afford it have fled to the country.  A servant, Face, takes advantage of his master’s absence to team up with an alchemist, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to con people out of their money.  Cue lots of scenes with the three in various disguises, spinning ridiculous stories and scenarios to a succession of gullible idiots.  One of the most colourful of these is Sir Epicure Mammon, who desires the Philosopher’s Stone, for the following dubious reasons:

MAM. For I do mean

To have a list of wives and concubines,

Equal with Solomon, who had the stone

Alike with me; and I will make me a back

With the elixir, that shall be as tough

 As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night.—

 Thou’rt sure thou saw’st it blood?

 FACE. Both blood and spirit, sir.

 MAM. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft;

Down is too hard: and then, mine oval room

Fill’d with such pictures as Tiberius took

From Elephantis, and dull Aretine

But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses

Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse

And multiply the figures, as I walk

 Naked between my succubae. My mists

 I’ll have of perfume, vapour’d ’bout the room,

 To lose ourselves in; and my baths, like pits

 To fall into; from whence we will come forth,

 And roll us dry in gossamer and roses.—

 Is it arrived at ruby?—Where I spy

 A wealthy citizen, or [a] rich lawyer,

 Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow

 I’ll send a thousand pound to be my cuckold.

Jonson was scathing of those who practiced alchemy (attempting to turn base material into gold) and the greed of both the tricksters and their tricks is scathingly skewered.  However, it is a comedy, and (SPOILER) no-one is severely punished.  Of course, nowadays we’re far too savvy to believe in such things as alchemy – now, where did I put that lottery ticket…..?

Here’s an example of sixteenth-century alchemical experiments in action:

“Oh, brothers! I don’t care for brothers. My elder brother won’t die, and my younger brothers seem never to do anything else.” (Oscar Wilde)

According to a skincare company trying to get me to spend more money, Friday was International Sisters Day. I don’t have a sister so my spending on moisturiser was limited, but I do have a brother. (And he buys his own moisturiser).  I have no idea when International Brothers Day is, so I thought I would theme this post around male siblings and just ignore the fact that it was supposed to be a celebration of sisterhood.  I should just point out that I chose the title quote because I love Oscar Wilde and it was about brothers, not because I’m waiting for my brother to die.  Without him in my life I would lose the one person who manages to simultaneously ridicule the things I say and do, whilst being unconditionally, unwaveringly supportive.  It’s a seemingly paradoxical combination that I’m sure many of you with siblings will recognise.  The texts I’ve chosen both feature brothers, but admittedly not a sibling relationship I found familiar. This is hardly surprising – I consider having a brother one of the great blessings of my life, and this doesn’t make for a very dynamic narrative. So the relationships depicted are dysfunctional and bordering on destructive, but this makes for two powerful tales of familial drama.

Firstly, a classic of modern American theatre, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949, my copy Penguin 2000).  The play tells the story of Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, as he loses his grip on his life.  He is aging, always a threat to a salesman’s career, and his sanity is wavering, he is subject to flashbacks and unable to distinguish between past and present at times.  The play is a damning indictment of a consumerist culture, and written in 1948, it sadly hasn’t aged at all:

LINDA: And Willy, don’t forget to ask for a little advance, because we’ve got the insurance premium. It’s the grace period now.

WILLY: That’s a hundred… ?

LINDA: A hundred and eight, sixty-eight. Because we’re a little short again.

WILLY: Why are we short?

LINDA: Well, you had the motor job on the car…

WILLY: That goddam Studebaker!

LINDA: And you got one more payment on the refrigerator…

WILLY: But it just broke again!

LINDA: Well, it’s old, dear.

WILLY: I told you we should’ve bought a well-advertised machine. Charley bought a General Electric and it’s twenty years old and it’s still good, that son-of-a-bitch.

LINDA: But, Willy…

WILLY: Whoever heard of a Hastings refrigerator? Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.

Within the pressures of consumerism, Willy and his sons struggle to make the money the need to buy the things they’re convinced they need, and still create a life of meaning.  The sons of the play, Happy and Biff, are close brothers, but very different.  Happy is a ladies man, working in the commercial sector, but lonely without fully knowing why.  Biff struggles under the weight of his father’s expectations, only knowing what he doesn’t want – to follow his father into sales:

BIFF: Why does Dad mock me all the time?

HAPPY: He’s not mocking you, he…

BIFF: Everything I say there’s a twist of mockery on his face. I can’t get near him.

HAPPY: He just wants you to make good, that’s all. I wanted to talk to you about Dad for a long time, Biff. Something’s — happening to him. He — talks to himself.

BIFF: I noticed that this morning. But he always mumbled.

HAPPY: But not so noticeable. It got so embarrassing I sent him to Florida. And you know something? Most of the time he’s talking to you.

BIFF: What’s he say about me?

HAPPY: I can’t make it out.

BIFF: What’s he say about me?

HAPPY: I think the fact that you’re not settled, that you’re still kind of up in the air…

BIFF: There’s one or two other things depressing him, Happy.

HAPPY: What do you mean?

BIFF: Never mind. Just don’t lay it all to me.

HAPPY: But I think if you just got started — I mean — is there any future for you out there?

BIFF: I tell ya, Hap, I don’t know what the future is. I don’t know — what I’m supposed to want.

Arthur Miller has a great reputation for good reason.  As the Loman family implodes under the weight of failure and disappointment, the play powerfully demonstrates the forces modern life can exert to a tragic extent.  Not a light read, but sixty-five years later, still a vital one.

Secondly, and with a title that gives two sibling types for the price of one, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt (Granta, 2011).  This novel was published to great acclaim and was shortlisted for the Booker in 2011.  I found it a strange read. Apparently there were suggestions that the Coen brothers buy the film rights (something which John C. Reilly has apparently done) and that fact should give you a good idea of the tone of the novel.  Like a Coen brothers film it is full of peculiar characters and situations, viscerally real yet oddly surreal, with a dry, deadpan humour.  The novel tells the tale of Charlie and Eli Sisters, brothers  who are murderers for hire amongst the gold rush of the 1850s. They are in the pay of the sinister Commodore, who has charged them to hunt down and kill the muppetly-named Hermann Kermit Warm.  The story is narrated by Eli, the more sensitive of the two brothers who longs to leave the life and open a trading post.  He and Charlie are bound by blood and deep understanding, a shared violent history and the fact that they work effectively as a murderous team.  Charlie is an alcoholic and the more violent of the two, but at times Eli sees him anew:

“He then located a deep spot in the stream, stripped down, and leapt in, shrieking loudly at its coldness.  I sat on the bank and watched him splashing and singing; he had not had anything to drink the night before and there had been no other people around to upset his volatile nature, and I found myself becoming sentimental by this rare show of happiness. Charlie had often been glad and singing as a younger man, before we took up with the Commodore, when he became guarded and hard”

The story has an episodic nature and short chapters, but the plot gains momentum as the brothers gain on their prey and realise all may not be as it seems.  It turns out these two seemingly immoral characters have a line they will not cross, but discovering this does not help them:

“He exhaled through his nostrils. “What do you think we should do?”

“What do you think we should do?”

But neither of us knew what to do.”

As the Sisters Brothers continue on their path, not knowing where it will lead, they struggle, similarly to the Loman family, to work out a vocation for themselves that will give their lives meaning. Although their circumstances may be more extreme – and downright weird – than most of us will ever know, the fundamental need for meaning and acceptance makes their struggles recogniseable.

Here are the books with a present my brother gave me a few years back, in memory of our childhood; Gabriel the folk-singing toad from Bagpuss, my favourite character from my favourite kids programme:

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And as a P.S.: Those of you interested in management leadership/self-improvement/self-leadership do check out my brother’s blog here.  He hasn’t updated in ages but he assures me he’s got lots of good posts planned soon.

“I’m definitely the best king in England at the moment.” (Charles II)

The theme for this week’s post came upon me quite suddenly this week, and turned out, most unpredictably, to be the English Civil War.  Firstly, a friend told me this was her new obsession, so we discussed books that she was reading.  Then on Friday night Ben Wheatley’s latest film,  A Field in England, premiered simultaneously in cinemas, on TV and on DVD, and so in watching it I ensured the latter half of my week was one concerned with seventeenth century politics. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a hallucinatory, yet somehow simultaneously earthy, tale of deserters during the English Civil War.  It’s original and disturbing, yet also funny, with comedy stalwarts such as Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt amongst the cast, the latter of whom gets to deliver one of the best lines of the film: “your privy parts are doomed, homunculus!” The black and white cinematography by Laurie Rose is stunning, all combining to make a truly memorable film.

But back to books.  I’ve chosen two texts (one’s a play) that reflect my ambivalence towards this time in history.  On the one hand, I’m a republican (small “r”, and nothing against our current Royal Family, it’s the institution I object to, not the people) but on the other hand, Cromwell is difficult to side with and I love Charles II.  Known as the Merry Monarch, his court was criticised for its excesses of all kinds, but I think it always sounds like quite a fun place to be (which undoubtedly says more about my lax morals than my politics).  He re-opened the theatres (that’s enough for me), allowed women on the stage for the first time, commissioned Christopher Wren to build some of our most beautiful buildings, and supported the war veterans. He also remembered his favourite mistress on his deathbed (“let not poor Nelly starve”) when he could have easily disregarded her, and endorsed religious tolerance.   Sometimes portrayed as dim, I think he was actually quite witty.  When John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester wrote “We have a pretty witty king,/And whose word no man relies on,/He never said a foolish thing,/And never did a wise one” Charles II apparently responded: “that’s true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers”. Far from perfect, I’d still pick him over the Puritan any day.  So to reflect this I’ve chosen a novel that is set during the Civil War, and a play that was written during the reign of Charles II and concerns a libertine follower of the King. All together now: “Oliver’s army’s here to staaaay, Oliver’s army’s on its waaaay…”

Firstly, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (2001, Flamingo).  This was McCann’s first novel and is written with great confidence, particularly as the narrator and protagonist, Jacob Cullen, is despicable.  But McCann’s writing so vividly evokes the era and the characters that you keep reading, despite being embroiled with a character you cannot sympathise with.  Jacob is a servant in a Royalist household.  The novel opens with a pond being dragged for a body, and the man who Jacob has murdered being pulled from the weeds.  He flees the estate with his new bride and brother, but his violent nature rises to the fore and he attacks his wife, raping her.  He then runs to join Cromwell’s army, where he meets Christopher Ferris, the love of his life:

“”Leave him, Ferris.”

“We cannot leave him like this.” Warm fingers wiped my mouth and chin.  I looked up to see a young man gazing perplexed into the distance, his profile lean and pensive, but full-lipped and long-nosed.  He knelt at my side as if watching for someone, his hand still absently stroking my lips so I breathed its scent of sweat and gunmetal.

I coughed against his palm, and he turned on me a pair of eyes as grey as my own. Pale hair hung thick on his collar; I saw he had shaved some days before. As I met his eyes they darkened, the pupils opening out like drops of black ink fallen into the grey, then he looked away, and his fingers slid from my face.

“Let me drink,” I creaked out.”

Jacob becomes obsessed by his idealistic lover, and follows him as he leaves the army for London, and then to a Diggers commune. Throughout the novel Jacob never becomes likeable, but if you can cope with that, then I really do recommend this book, as it is perfectly paced, visceral and evocative:

“Men were screaming, “For God and Parliament!” I saw the first of ours run up the breach and fling himself on the defenders.  There were flashes, followed by the sound of musket fire, and screams. I struggled to run with my weapon upright and not fall over it. At the front I could see a great mass of men packed and heaving together. A little further forward and we were pressing into the breach, those inside jabbing at us with bills.  Slashing back, I laid a face open. Muskets fired on us from the upper storeys, hand grenades rained down and I saw a man shot to bits in front of me…”

If all that sounds a bit heavy and grim, then may I recommend a Restoration comedy by way of light relief?  The Rover by Aphra Behn (1677) was a hugely popular play in its time, and the protagonist, Willmore, thought to be modelled on either Charles II or John Wilmot.  Aphra Behn was the first woman to make a living as a professional writer, which prompted Virginia Woolf to proclaim “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”  She’s certainly an interesting woman, who worked as a Royalist spy, but when Charles II refused to pay her expenses (told you he wasn’t perfect) she earned her living through her pen.  The Rover follows a group of Cavaliers who arrive in Naples for carnival, and their romantic embroilments.  There is disguise, women avoiding nunneries, mistaken identities, beautiful courtesans, trapdoors, robberies, cross-dressing… its hugely entertaining and witty.  When Willmore first meets his love interest Hellena, she is disguised as a gypsy (obviously):

Hellena. Sister, there’s your Englishman, and with him a handsom proper Fellow—I’ll to him, and instead of telling him his Fortune, try my own.

Wilmore. Gipsies, on my Life—Sure these will prattle if a Man cross their Hands.[Goes to Hellena] —Dear pretty (and I hope) young Devil, will you tell an amorous Stranger what Luck he’s like to have?

Hell. Have a care how you venture with me, Sir, lest I pick your Pocket, which will more vex your English Humour, than an Italian Fortune will please you.

Will. How the Devil cam’st thou to know my Country and Humour?

Hell. The first I guess by a certain forward Impudence, which does not displease me at this time; and the Loss of your Money will vex you, because I hope you have but very little to lose.

Will. Egad Child, thou’rt i’th’ right; it is so little, I dare not offer it thee for a Kindness—But cannot you divine what other things of more value I have about me, that I would more willingly part with?

Hell. Indeed no, that’s the Business of a Witch, and I am but a Gipsy yet—Yet, without looking in your Hand, I have a parlous Guess, ’tis some foolish Heart you mean, an inconstant English Heart, as little worth stealing as your Purse.

Will. Nay, then thou dost deal with the Devil, that’s certain—Thou hast guess’d as right as if thou hadst been one of that Number it has languisht for—I find you’ll be better acquainted with it; nor can you take it in a better time, for I am come from Sea, Child; and Venus not being propitious to me in her own Element, I have a world of Love in store—Wou’d you would be good-natur’d, and take some on’t off my Hands.

Hell. Why—I could be inclin’d that way—but for a foolish Vow I am going to make—to die a Maid.

Will. Then thou art damn’d without Redemption; and as I am a good Christian, I ought in charity to divert so wicked a design—therefore prithee, dear Creature, let me know quickly when and where I shall begin to set a helping hand to so good a Work.

Hell. If you should prevail with my tender Heart (as I begin to fear you will, for you have horrible loving Eyes) there will be difficulty in’t that you’ll hardly undergo for my sake.

Will. Faith, Child, I have been bred in Dangers, and wear a Sword that has been employ’d in a worse Cause, than for a handsom kind Woman—Name the Danger—let it be any thing but a long Siege, and I’ll undertake it.

Hell. Can you storm?

Will. Oh, most furiously.

Hell. What think you of a Nunnery-wall? for he that wins me, must gain that first.

Will. A Nun! Oh how I love thee for’t! there’s no Sinner like a young Saint—

As the scene above shows, sex is very much at the forefront and the libertinism makes the play saucy but not crude. The play has been noted for its threats of violence and rape against women, but I think the fact that Hellena is as witty a match for Willmore, and (slight SPOILER) that he gives up his roving ways for marriage at the end of play (well, it is a comedy) means that power lies with the women as far as possible in the misogynistic cavalier society, and this means the play can still be enjoyed today. If the excerpt above made you roll your eyes at the sight of seventeenth century language, I’d still recommend you see it performed.  It’s fast-paced, fun, verbally witty, physically ridiculous, dramatic comedy at its very best.

Here are the books with some oranges, in honour of Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II, theatre actress and orange seller:

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“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” (Jerome K. Jerome)

This weekend is the May Day Bank Holiday in UK.  For those of you who don’t have this celebratory tradition, it’s very simple.  A young woman is dressed in diaphanous clothing and flowers and carried through the village.  Traditionally she would have been a virgin.  Yes, in Britain we like celebrate the purity of young girls by parading them as some sort of Springtime woodland sex fairy.  Then we get children to dance with ribbons around a giant phallic symbol – nothing inappropriate there.  Then grown men strap bells to their ankles and don knickerbockers to dance with each other (women are banned from this so inherently masculine of pursuits) and whack each other with well, that would be phallic symbols again.  It’s not as weird as it sounds.  I did the mammoth cock ribbon dance (not its technical name) as a six year old and it didn’t do me any lasting damage – my therapist promises me it’s all reversible.  The traumas of May Day aside, 1st May is also International Workers Day, and so I’ve chosen a play that picks up on themes of May Day, and a novel about workers politics.

Firstly, a disclaimer. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth is set on St George’s Day (23 April), not May Day.  But hey, what’s a week? I decided to go ahead with it anyway as it lends itself to May Day – ideas of ritual, tradition, Springtime and revelry run throughout.  Seeing Jerusalem was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre;  Mark Rylance in the lead role of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron put in a performance that was literally breathtaking – and that’s not a misuse of the word literally, at one point I realised I’d forgotten to breathe. I loved it so much that when a friend offered me the chance to interview Mark Rylance I turned it down – I couldn’t bear the thought that I might not like him off-stage and that I’d lose that performance. Even if you didn’t catch Jerusalem, which ran 3 times in London and also on Broadway, I still recommend the playtext.  Jez Butterworth is a highly rated playwright and his original voice and great skill mean it is an enjoyable read.

Rooster Byron lives in a mobile home in a wood.  The local council plan to evict him.  The local teenagers love him (and sort of despise him), as he supplies them with drugs and alcohol.  A local girl (dressed as a fairy) has disappeared and her psychotic step-father believes Rooster is involved, and plans to do him serious damage. Amongst these various pressures, Rooster remains resolutely upbeat and self-aggrandizing, with tall tales such as this one of his conception, whereby his philandering father is shot by his wife:

JOHNNY….The bullet passes clean through his scrotum…where it hits the number 87 tram to Andover. The bullet passes through two inches of rusty metal, clean through an elderly lady’s packed lunch and lodges in my sweet mother’s sixteen year old womb. Eight months, three weeks, six days later. Out pops him. Smiling. With a bullet clenched between his teeth.

GINGER. First of all. Babies don’t have teeth.

JOHNNY. All Byron boys are born with teeth. Thirty two chompers.  And hair on thems chest,…

Hopefully it’s apparent that Jerusalem is very funny.  Traditions surround the characters, such as the local Flintock Fair taking place, but are made resolutely current, such as when a Morris dancer arrives, talking about how his participation is due to a “Swindon-level decision”, and needing drugs to get him through it – hardly a bucolic idyll.  This take on England’s green and pleasant land lends the play a slightly surreal air, as Rooster’s outsider status gives him an askance view of the traditions, both wholly entangled (he was once the main attraction of Flintock Fair, performing daredevil stunts) and yet undermining them also.  The surreal quality exists in fairly straightforward exchanges:

JOHNNY. …Two weeks back, your brother Daffy comes round here, tries to buy three grams of whizz with a tortoise.

LEE. That weren’t his tortoise. That’s my sister’s tortoise.

JOHNNY. Well, now it’s my fucking tortoise. Little bugger pisses everywhere. It pisses pints.  It’s like the TARDIS.

LEE. He’s right. That tortoise pisses like a shirehorse.

But as well as humour, the surreal quality is unnerving, and you feel anything could happen.  When Byron claims he met a ninety foot giant “just off the A14 outside Upavon. About half a mile from the Little Chef. I’d been up for three days and nights playing canasta with these old ladies in a retirement home outside Wootton Bassett.” you don’t entirely disbelieve him.  What is real, what is fable, merge until you are not sure whether you watching a man in a mobile home in a wood in the West Country or a mythic being inextricably bound to the legends of the land. Maybe both. I can’t recommend Jerusalem highly enough.

Secondly, and I’ll make this brief, as my love for Jerusalem means I’ve wittered on too much already, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.   Published in 1914, 3 years after the death of its author from tuberculosis, TRTP is a classic of socialist literature.  Frank Owen, described on the back cover of my copy of the novel as a “journeyman-prophet”, joins a group of workers who are renovating a house known as The Cave.  He encourages them to consider their role within a capitalist system and how they engage in their own economic suppression.  It’s a long novel, and highly polemical, but it’s also very readable and engaging.  In one of the most famous sequences in the book, Owen uses a loaf of bread to explain his reasoning. The bread is raw materials, cutlery is machinery, the cut pieces of bread the goods made.

‘You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. I shall pay each of you one pound per week, and a week’s work is -you must each produce three of these square blocks…..

‘These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can’t live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is–one pound each.’

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist’s terms. They each bought back and at once consumed one-third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week’s work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of the things produced by the labour of the others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital,…as for the working classes,… they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work-they had nothing.”

This occurs in a chapter called ‘The Reign of Terror. The Great Money Trick’. As you may have guessed, TRTP is quite a bleak novel. Nothing changes and the workers are so indoctrinated in the system that Owen fails to raise their consciousness, turning his attention instead to George Barrington, a middle-class socialist who plans to overturn the system through elected representatives in the House of Commons (argue amongst yourselves as to how that’s working out). The Philanthropists of the title are the workers, doing so much for so little their labour must surely be an act of philanthropy towards their capitalist employers. This bitter irony captures the attitude of the novel towards the complicity of all society in a capitalist system, but although it is an angry book, TRTP doesn’t lose sight of its story amongst the politics.

Here are the books garlanded in May Day fashion:

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“One can no more approach people without love than one can approach bees without care. Such is the quality of bees” (Leo Tolstoy)

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I’m late as usual, but I hope you spent the day feeling loved/with loved ones, whether it was with a romantic partner, friends, family or simply re-reading David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna (don’t judge me).  For those of you feeling a bit unloved, may I suggest a dog? There are loads that need rescuing, and they will provide unconditional adoration and support.  Picking up excrement in public with a hand clothed in a plastic bag is a small price to pay in return (note: this only applies to dogs.  If a human being offers you adoration in return for picking up their poo, it’s totally not worth it.  Unless you enjoy that sort of thing, in which case, Congrats! You’ve found your soulmate). Anyhow, in much the same way that this post seems to have been hijacked by doggy-do, Valentine’s Day has been hijacked by romance.  According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, as well as being the patron saint of affianced couples, happy marriages and love, St Valentine is also the saint for bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and against fainting (it’s about time someone took a stand against impromptu unconsciousness).  So for this Valentine’s post I’m going to look at a play featuring a bee-keeper and a novel about the plague – who needs love?  (Not me, I’ve got David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna).

Firstly, Constellations by Nick Payne (Faber & Faber 2012).  I know reading a play is secondary to seeing it performed, and also that sometimes reading plays can feel secondary to reading a novel, a form written to be read.  But I think it’s worth doing.  Theatre can be prohibitively expensive, and depends on you being able to see the performance within a set period at a location you can reach.  These factors can mean you never make it to the show.  Reading the playtext enables engagement with the art (sorry, I couldn’t think how else to phrase that, I know it sounds affected, sorry, sorry) even if you never set foot in the theatre.  I saw Constellations performed, and it was astounding.  Reading the playtext doesn’t give you Rafe Spall’s and Sally Hawkins’ brilliant comic timing and emotionally nuanced performances, nor does it show you Tom Scutt’s beautiful design.  But it does give you the characters, the plot, the language.

Marianne and Roland meet and fall in love.  They meet and never see each other again.  They meet and date.  It goes well, it goes badly. They split up.  They stay together.  Roland keeps bees and sells honey.  Marianne is a theoretical early universe cosmologist.  Which is handy, as she can explain multiverse theory as we watch all the possibilities of their relationship played out across multiple universes:

“In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”

Scenes are played out with minute changes and big changes, and the skill of Nick Payne’s writing ensures this stays fresh.  The layering of scenes on top of each other means we end up with a great depth of understanding of the characters, seeing how the same person can react differently given only slight changes in circumstance.  It does mean however, that it’s difficult to give you a quote from the play, as the dialogue really gains meaning within the set of scenes and the play as a whole.  What I’ll give you, as it’s Valentine’s day, is part of Roland’s proposal speech (that’s not a spoiler, as its only one of the many possible outcomes…)

“…in a strange sort of way I’m jealous of the humble honey bee and their quiet elegance. If only our existence were that simple. If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing. I am uncertain when it comes to a great many things. But there is now one thing that I am defiantly certain of….Marianne Aubele, will you marry me?”

Yes, Constellations is romantic.  But looking at all the possible outcomes means it is resolutely realistic as well, despite the unreality of watching a multiverse romance from our monoverse (is that a word?) perspective.  Throughout the different multiverses one event recurs again and again, unchanging.  This underpins all the variations and creates a dramatic tension, pulling the characters towards a single conclusion.  Even if you don’t usually read plays, I highly recommend you give the inventive and thought-provoking Constellations a shot (in at least this one of the many multiverses, you’ve got all the others in which to totally ignore me…)

Secondly, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (4th estate, 2001).  Based on the true story of the village of Eyam, it tells the story of a village that chose to quarantine itself from the outside world in 1666 when plague struck.  The narrator of the story is Anna, a young woman who loses her family and watches the village assaulted in body, mind and spirit, as the disease and its consequences takes its toll.  Everyday life in extraordinary circumstances is sensitively described, such as when Anna starts acting a midwife for the village:

“Randoll burst through the blanket-door when he heard his lusty son, and his big miner’s hand fluttered like a moth from the damp head of the babe to his wife’s flushed cheek and back again, as if he didn’t know which of them he most wanted to touch… We laughed. And, for an hour, in that season of death, we celebrated a life…But even in the midst of that joy, I knew that I would have to leave the babe nursing at his mother’s breast and return to my own cottage, silent and empty, where the only sound that would greet me would be the phantom echoes of my own boys’ infant cries.”

At the time of the plague, Britain was caught between an age of religion and an age of science, and the villagers struggle between these two forces as they try to find an explanation for what they endure.  In that year witchcraft, madness and illicit passions stalk the village while wild justice is meted out.  By the time the year ends, every inhabitant of the village is hugely, irrevocably changed.  But in the midst of the tragedies, there are miracles.

Geraldine Brooks never lets her research get in the way of the story as you sometimes find with historical novels, and the balance between historical detail and narrative drive creates a novel that is both vivid and gripping.

Bees and bubonic plague – feel the love, people……….

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