Saturday, February 15, 2014

Theatre Review : Happy Days by Samuel Beckett - Young Vic Theatre (dir Natalie Abrahami 9/2/14)

Publicity Shot for Happy Days at
Young Vic with Juliet Stevenson
Beckett has somehow managed to pass me by. A West End Godot several years ago was an enjoyable introduction, but since then nothing. Yet now, like No33 buses, four plays come along at once. Admittedly Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby provide three of these plays in the space of an hour, but it a hypnotizing hour, and unlike anything else in the West End. And now, with Happy Days at the Young Vic,I have just been exposed to my second dose of Beckett in the space of a week.

Except, perhaps "dose" is not the right word. It has connotations of something that unpleasant that will do you good - a bit like Beckett's formidable reputation. No one doubts his genius, or his ability to explore the existential depths of the human condition. But for a fun night out? Listening to a despairing monologue from an actor up to her neck in grit? It's not what most immediately springs to mind. Admittedly Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby is not a laugh-a-minute. But Happy Days was apparently written after Beckett's wife asked him to write something cheerier after Krapp's Last Tape, and especially in the first half it is surprisingly light in tone.

Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) is buried up to the waist on some kind of beach. A Klaxon blares, and she awakens to "another heavenly day". She opens her bag to take out her essential accoutrements - toothbrush, mirror, parasol, revolver. A deft flick of the parasol wakens her husband Willie (David Beames), hidden behind a rock. Willie is not a conversationalist - he hides behind his newspaper and utters the occasional monosyllable. Winnie however, talks incessantly - cheerfully, slightly manically reflecting on her situation and harking back to her memories. Her talking is her response to her situation, trapped, helpless, unable to communicate, unable to elicit a response from Willie and ultimately empty. Where Juliet Stevenson's mesmeric performance was most impressive was in conveying the emptiness behind this cheerful, chattering exterior. She has a wonderfully mobile face and her precise hand gestures gave subtle emphasis to every move that she made.

In the second half, the world had closed in on Winnie. Trapped up to her neck under a remorseless sun, whenever she closed her eyes the klaxon blasted her awake and pebbles rolled down around her shoulders from the cliffs below. By now, her optimism has faded, her cheeks are hollow, her chatter tired and despairing, shrouded with inevitability. She cannot of course reach any more the items in her bag which lay strewn around her. She tells with distaste of a course man who had seen her and wondered aloud if she had anything on under the sand - she has been isolated and objectified. In the final moments Willie comes towards her from behind his rock, but - inevitably - cannot reach her.

Winnie could just as well be sitting by the window of her suburban semi, chattering emptily away to Willie whose head is still in the paper, or engrossed in Sky Sports. As the relentlessness of daily existence increases, Winnie would become more submerged in despair, unable to reach out, communicate, sleep. Willie's final efforts to reach her would be equally futile. Beckett's bleak vision may be absurd, but deep down, Winnie and Willie could be any one of us.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Book Review : The Game by A.S. Byatt (Vintage 1999, first published 1967)

It is the winter of 1963, and when sisters Julia and Cassandra return to Northumberland on the death of their father, they are snowed in. Living once again in such close company, they are forced to re-examine aspects of their childhood, and the causes of the rivalry that has blighted their relationship. Foremost is their relationship with their neighbour, Simon, who is now a leading herpetologist and TV personality. Julia is married to Thor, who retains the Quaker religion that they all once shared, and is an author, whilst Cassandra is an Oxford don of Medieval literature.

This is a book as stifling and claustrophobic as Julia and Cassandra's relationship. Cassandra's jealousy of Julia is triggered when she won a writing competition as a girl. It was compounded by the attention that Simon showed to her. Julia is prettier, more easy-going, more successful, lacking the introversion and obsessiveness of Cassandra, but just as vulnerable.

It is a finely-written book, showing deep insight into the sisters' relationships, yet was never an enjoyable book to read. Partly there is a sense that everything is overdetermined, all the relationships in the book are too intense. All the characters are infuriating without exception. There is also a sense that parts of it just don't quite ring true. The Baker family, for example, who add to the sense of claustrophobia by being invited by Thor to live at their flat, never make it beyond a caricature of the indigent poor, whilst the fate of Simon's camaraman is supposed to be shocking but is almost amusing.

Much symbolism arrives with a clunk. It is very convenient that Simon is a herpetologist, introducing discord into the garden. Cassandra, meanwhile, studies dessicated medieval documents, and keeps a statuette of Morgan Le Fay. Thor's religion is seen as an oppressive force, forcing him to try to be good. In the end, its all a bit much. As Ivan comments on Julia's novel "it has a lifelessness books have when they're overwrought." It would be ten years before A.S. Byatt published another novel, but within a couple of pages one would be able to sense a lightness which this novel and its predecessor lacked.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Book Review : Capital by John Lanchester (Faber & Faber 2012)

The residents of Pepys Road, South London, are an eclectic mix. 82 year old Petunia Howe has lived there all her life, yet most of her neighbours are incomers. Roger and Arabella Yount bought their upmarket property from the proceeds of Roger's job as an Investment Banker. Freddy Kamo is a Premiership footballer. Ahmed Kamal runs the corner shop with his wife and two brothers. Meanwhile, Zbigniew the Polish builder is putting up Arabella's shelves, whilst Quentina Mkfesi, a political refugee from Zimbabwe, is walking Pepys Road in search of parking infringements.

When the residents begin to receive postcards of their houses with the sinister message "We want what you have", the relationship between them and their material possessions are placed under the microscope. The appalling Arabella Yount has completely objectified herself in material terms. Roger needs a £1million bonus to meet his family's extravagant requirements. Freddy's father Patrick wishes that he was back in Senegal where life was poorer but simpler. Petunia's grandson Smitty is a Banksy-style artist whose anonymity is a commodity. Zbigniew monitors his share portfolio so that he can return to Poland to set up in business with his father.

Overlying the material relations are typically modern physical threats. The postcards turn nasty. The Kamal's brother is arrested as a terrorist. Freddy is injured playing football. Quentina is interned. Petunia has cancer. Roger is caught up in the banking crisis.

Yet despite these pitfalls, this is a surprisingly warm-hearted book. These tribulations are generally redemptive, underscoring the importance of family, love, friendship and respect. Only Arabella Yount is too far-gone in her materialistic cocoon to be able to contemplate the opportunities that Roger's change in lifestyle may offer, and whilst the fate of the admirable Quentina gives little to be optimistic about, she knows that Zimbabwe will not be ruled by a tyrant forever.

John Lanchester has succeeded in writing an immensely enjoyable State-of-the-Nation novel. The way in which each set of characters' lives impinge on each other only very tangentially is exactly how a modern street works. Admittedly most characters are not sketched in much depth and the novel lacks complexity - yet it is this lightness which captures the superficial freneticness and interconnectivity of modern life so well.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Book Review : Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Macmillan 2001)

Is greatness entirely contingent on being the right man in the right place at the right time? If, when Churchill was struck by a car in New York City in 1931, the injuries had proved fatal, then he would be remembered no more than as a colourful actor on the British political stage, whose positive contributions, such as the introduction of Labour Exchanges and Employment insurance in 1909, were more than overwhelmed by his political disasters - such as his advocacy of Gallipoli, the return to the Gold Standard (against his better judgement and on the advice of John Maynard Keynes, no less) and his emerging opposition to the end of British rule in India.

He was a controversial politician, crossing the house twice and apparently disliked on both sides as a result. Yet, like Gladstone and Lloyd George but probably no others, he could speak. Members filled the chamber to hear his meticulously prepared speeches, his rhetoric usually soaring even if they disagreed with his content.

Yet, Churchill's time came in 1940. He had been consistent in opposing Naziism throughout the 1930s, and the fall of Chamberlain and Churchill's ascent to power is meticulously detailed in this fine autobiography. Chamberlain wanted to hand the Premiership over to Halifax, who, as a peer, demurred. Power passed to Churchill. As Halifax favoured peace with Hitler, who knows what the world would look like today if Halifax had not declined the chance of power.

As Premier, Churchill reinvigorated the faltering war effort, brought in some talented ministers from all sides of the House and from Industry, and galvanised the population with his keynote speeches.Yet for long periods he was absent. Amazingly, in the year from 12 January 1943, he was out of the country for 172 days, plus a further 35 days absent from Parliament due to pneumonia contracted whilst travelling. No-one can doubt the importance of his meetings with Roosevelt and Stalin, nor the bravery of travelling huge distances by air and sea at great risk to himself, yet to be away for half the year displays inordinate confidence in his deputy, Attlee.

Yet the War coalition was surprisingly unpopular. Bye-elections were lost with a surprising frequency, which was a foretaste of the upheaval of 1945. But by this time, Churchill's star had stated to decline. He was a poor leader of the opposition, and his second premiership, marred as it was by ill-health, was undistinguished. His much-delayed departure was anxiously awaited by more than just Eden.

Roy Jenkins' biography is exemplary. Based on copious secondary sources rather than original research, it is an admirable and compendious work of synthesis. Jenkins can turn a phrase almost as well as Churchill himself, though with less extravagance, and the result is a compellingly readable account which presents Churchill as gifted, wildly ambitious, egotistical, infuriating but always touched with greatness. In the final analysis he may be too kind to Churchill's final administration which in my opinion led Britain to a damaging period of stasis, yet overall he is admirably balanced throughout. He is respectful and admiring, yet this is no hagiography. And that is how it should be. Churchill was a flawed character in many ways - a drinker, a gambler, an egotist of frequently flawed judgement, yet when Britain faced its darkest hour, he was the one who to whom we turned, and he delivered.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Book Review : Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber 2000)

There are some books that one underestimates at one's peril.

Mr Phillips is a very ordinary man. An accountant, a London Commuter, a daydreamer about sex, he wakes up on Monday morning and readies himself for the office as he does every day. Except there is a difference today, as he was made redundant on Friday, and hasn't yet brought himself to tell his wife or family.

Over the course of the day, he meets his son for lunch, he chats with a pornographer, he sees a minor celebrity and gets involved in a bank robbery, reflecting all the time with his interior voice on the nature of his former job, his family, the memory or prospect of sex, or whether the probability of death between purchase and draw of a lottery ticket outweighs the probability of winning the jackpot.

Meanwhile, his life as an office-working, commuting wage-drone is dissected sliver by sliver, and is immediately recognisable to all who trudge up to London each day. "Like most experienced commuters, Mr Phillips has a variety of techniques for seizing somewhere to sit, sneaking around the side of the door and sliding into the jump-seats or barrelling down to the far end of the compartment, through the thickets of passengers, briefcases, newspapers, outstretched legs...The battle for a space prepared you for, was an allegory of the daily struggle. You could argue that those who fought their way to the seats were the people who needed them least. To them that hath shall be given, that was the deal." It is this juxtaposition of the quotidian with the interiorised faux philosophy which makes this book so funny and identifiable.

Mr Phillips is vaguely lustfully following D-list celebrity Clarissa Colingford into a bank, when crash-helmetted shotgun-wielding robbers burst in. As Mr Phillips lies on the floor he reminisces on his previous near-death experiences, mortality rates of lottery-ticket buyers and speculates of the reaction of his family to his death. And then he stands up.

Later, he helps an old lady with her shopping. It turns out that she is the wife of Mr Erith (as the rhyme goes, there are men in the village of Erith that nobody seeth or heareth), his fanatical old RE teacher. She shows Mr Phillips a book where several sayings, including one by Paul de Man, are embroidered. "Nothing, whether deed, word thought or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows or exists elsewhere, but only is a random act whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence." Has Mr Phillips' day been the confirmation or refutation of this and the other observations? Or is Lanchester subtly saying, pace de Man, that as a work of literature "Mr Phillips" means nothing, due to the irrelevance of human matters.

So is it trivial or profound? What is sure is that it is very readable, funny and full of blasts of recognition that this fortysomething office-worker found uncomfortably familiar.

Book Review : The Chancellors by Roy Jenkins (MacMillan 1998)

The prospect of a survey of all the Chancellors of the Exchequer from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton from the unique perspective of someone who was not only a notable incumbent of this position himself, but also one of our finest writers on the politics of the period in question, seemed replete with possibilities. Firstly, we would be able to chart the evolution of the role from its high-Victorian incarnation in its current form through the troughs in its status during the wars, to its current position second only to that of the Prime Minister himself. Secondly, we could chart the evolution in economic policy through a turbulent century where the economics of Empire and Free Trade were turned on their heels by two world wars, the Great Depression and the rise of the Welfare State. And finally, we could examine the types of person who became Chancellor, and the success or otherwise of these types in the role.

Roy Jenkins' book attempts tentatively to address these questions, but only in the latter is he successful, and then only up to a point. The book's shortcomings, if such they be, are those of organisation and ambition. Certainly one cannot fault the sonorous, slightly orotund flow of Jenkins' prose, of a type that one rarely encounters nowadays, or the clarity of biographical exposition. Parallels with the current credit crisis are of interest, such as the Barings crisis of 1890, where overexposure to Argeninian and Russian Bonds nearly brought Barings Bank, and with it the whole city of London, to its knees - perhaps if this book had been written today and not 14 years ago, these parallels may have been made more overt (although the coincidence of Barings' misfortunes in recent times is underlined).

However, Jenkins has used his own work as frame of reference for determining the scope of the book, which is understandable but unfortunate. He sees Randolph Churchill as a natural continuation from the scope of his work on Gladstone, and Dalton's successors were all the subjects of essays by Jenkins. Churchill, Lloyd George, Asquith and Baldwin are the subjects of abbreviated essays as Jenkins has written at length about them elsewhere. Yet these choices encumber the subject as a whole. The modern Chancellorship was the creation of Gladstone and Disraeli, under whose tenures the position was elevated to that of of second in the cabinet and budget day became a national institution. This is only hinted at in the introduction. Instead, the first incumbent we meet is Randolph Churchill, biographically interesting but certainly not the most typical or successful holder of the office, and by concluding with Dalton partway through Atlee's landmark administration, there is a sense that we have ended with a story half-told which, once commenced, should have continued through to Gaitskill at the very least.

The second shortcoming is one of ambition, and this is partly caused by Jenkins organising his material biographically. Chancellors such as Harcourt, Hicks Beach and the Chamberlain half-brothers had more than one term of office, yet their records are looked at in the context of single biographies, so it is very difficult to get a continuous sense of how economic policy evolved in context, or of how the position of Chancellor itself changed over time.

This biographical approach does place emphasis on the type of person who succeeded as Chancellor, yet in the cases of Churchill and Lloyd George you have two of the most influential Chancellors of the 20th Century, but in these critical cases the biographical details relevant to their Chancellorship is skimped over. As a consequence, there is no discussion of the relationship in Asquith's administration between Lloyd George as Chancellor and Churchill as President of the Board of Trade, how Churchill's unemployment pension and labour exchanges complemented Lloyd George's Old Age Pensions, and how this contrasted with Churchill's performance as a Conservative Chancellor fifteen years later. This is a major shortcoming.

This is unfortunate, as a comprehensive overview would be very illuminating. As it is, biographical attention is given to some of the forgotten names of British politics such as C.T Richie and Sir Robert Horne - which is very worthy, and the resulting vignettes are interesting in themselves, but I can't help feeling that this book as a whole should be seen as an opportunity lost.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review : The Time of My Life by Denis Healey (Penguin 1990)

When one thinks of Denis Healey, one tends to remember a rumbustious character who never shied away from a confrontation, and whose troubled Chancellorship included inflation of 27%, interest rates of 15%, industrial strife and an IMF bailout. What is less familiar is the lover of poetry and theatre, the fluent linguist who broadcast on BBC World Service in French, Italian and German,who made deep and lasting friendships with so many people in so many walks of life around the world. In this splendid political autobiography, Healey attempts to put the record straight, and prove that there was more to him than the political bruiser that he was often taken for.

There is an element of self-justification in how he presents his time in office, but in his biggest battles history looks quite favourably on the outcomes he achieved. His first love was International Affairs, and one senses that the fact that the Foreign Secretaryship eluded him was a cause for regret. As defense secretary he oversaw Britain's withdrawal from unsustainable commitments East of Suez, whilst maintaining a nuclear deterrent with a degree of independence from the United States.

As Chancellor, he claims that if treasury PSBR forecasts had been accurate, he needn't have had to go cap in hand to the IMF - and indeed the loan was repaid by the time that Healey left office. After the traumas of 1975 and 1976 the economy had been dramatically turned round. By 1977, the Balance of Payments was positive, the pound was worth more than $2, interest rates had fallen to 5% and both inflation and unemployment were falling.Yet from that unnaturally propitious position, Callaghan's government persisted with an income policy too far, and the result was the Winter of Discontent. Healey is understandably scathing on the asinity and self-interest of  Union chiefs such as  Moss Evans and Clive Jenkins, who failed to show the leadership of their predecessors and whose dogmatism and lack of foresight indirectly led to twelve years of Thatcherism.One of the great pleasures of this book is its incisive pen-portraits - Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Vic Feather are accorded deep respect, but his scorn for those implicated in Labour's implosion following their loss in 1979 is withering.

This great pleasure of this book is to accompany such a warm and engaging companion through his rise from a relatively humble background through Balliol and up through the ranks of the Labour party to the highest offices of state. His perspective from the inside of negotiations with the likes of the Americans on nuclear detterence, is eye-opening, his analysis of the events in which he was involved acute. Yet it is the characters that he has met which make this book special, many names with which one won't be familiar but all described with a warmth when deserved and a brutal dismissal when not. Everyone knows his description of Geoffrey Howe - who he liked and respected- from the House of Commons, yet not nearly as savage as his dismissal of his old foe Tony Benn in this book: "It is ironic that Tony Benn's ministerial career should have left only two monuments behind - the uranium mine in Namibia that he authorised as Energy Secretary which helps to support apartheid...and an aircraft [Concorde] which is used by wealthy people on their expense accounts, whose fairs are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers." Like the man himself, insightful, uncompromising but ultimately fair.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Book Review : Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott (HarperCollins 1992)

History has not been kind to Harold Wilson. His administrations are remembered primarily for their crises - devaluation, In Place of Strife, rocketing inflation and the turmoil of the seventies. The circumstances of his resignation were strange, the only British Prime Minister last century to leave office at a time of his own choosing, when not forced to do so by political events, illness or electoral defeat. The infamous lavender list left a nasty taste in a country recently rocked by Poulson.

Yet it the achievements of Wilson's governments were significant. They represented a sea-change from the previous administration (13 of Macmillan's cabinet had gone to Eton) which was much more in tune with a rapidly changing society. Wilson's famous words on the "white heat of the technical revolution" stuck a chord with the voters, and Labour was swept to power in 1964 with a mandate to modernise. Whilst the its attempt to direct investment more efficiently through a National Plan created by the new Department of Economic Affairs was a failure, its attempt to create a fairer society through the expansion of university education was undoubtedly of lasting significance. Capital punishment was abolished, abortion and homosexuality were legalised, the Lord Chancellor's censorship of the theatre was swept away. Later events were to show that the ideas behind In Place of Strife were undoubtedly correct, and the subsequent emasculation of the Trade Union movement under Thatcher indicate that the Trade Union movement's opposition to the White Paper was misplaced.

Wilson's administration redefined the nature of Britain's armed forces, reduced defence spending from 8% to 5% of GDP in keeping with Britain's post-colonial role, whilst withdrawing from traditional commitments "East of Suez". Perhaps his greatest achievement was to keep British troops out of Vietnam despite intense pressure from a United States government on whom Britain was dependent for economic support during recurring balance of payments crises. Only a funambulist with the skill of Wilson could have achieved this balancing act.

Yet Wilson's tragedy came in two electoral shocks - his unexpected defeat in 1970, and his equally unexpected victory in 1974. He was shaken to the core by his loss, and when he regained power in 1974 the drive and attention to detail was no longer there. Pimlott shows conclusively that Wilson was planning his resignation almost as soon as he had taken power, thus dispelling rumours of lurking scandals or MI5 conspiracies to unseat him.

Pimlott's is a classic political biography: comprehensive, detailed, sympathetic but not uncritical. He presents Wilson as a highly capable administrator, whose mercurial brilliance allowed him to paper over the deep divisions between right and left in the labour party. He felt deeply betrayed by his protégée Anthony Wedgwood Benn's swing to the left, and the widening chasm between him and the Jenkinsites of the right contributed to his deepening sense of disillusionment. Wilson was no ideologue, but Pimlott gives a sense that in Wilson's final administration he no longer believed that he was capable of transforming Britain into the fairer, more efficient and better run state that he had worked for all his life.