Archive for the ‘UK’ Category

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The Audience (NT Live)

22 July 2016

(Cross-posted from elsewhere, considering the links to previous books I’ve read and reviewed here.)

I saw an NT Live showing of The Audience last night, in which Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II during her weekly audiences with a number of her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. (It was filmed in 2013, so unlike the recent West End revival it does not do the trick where the dialogue in Cameron’s scenes changes from week to week based on current events. Thankfully for us all.)

I greatly enjoyed it and laughed quite a lot, though the thing I was most struck by was the play’s deliberate choice to focus on illness, physical and mental, of the people in power. Anthony Eden openly takes a dose of what I believe to be dexamyl on stage shortly before his audience with the Queen, and appears to be in a tightly wound, near-manic state throughout his scene as he rants about Nasser, Hitler, and Mussolini at the height of the Suez Crisis. Gordon Brown tries to speak cheerfully and casually as he mentions his new diet and the foods he can’t eat, a direct reference to the rumours swirling in 2009 that he was taking MAOIs to combat depression. (The Queen chimes in sympathetically with an admission of OCD tendencies — ‘pens and shoes must be lined up just so, or I get very vexed‘.) And Harold Wilson’s early decline into Alzheimer’s disease has the most poignant scene at the play’s heart, where even the Queen is shocked at how her prime minister’s once-razor-sharp mental faculties are visibly crumbling into paranoia and forgetfulness. The Queen herself reveals her emotional and physical weaknesses during a scene set in 1992, where she is fighting a terrible cold and watching her children’s marriages fall apart as John Major struggles to convince her that the royal family will have to make changes to their lifestyle or risk greater public displeasure. To me, it seems a reasonable choice to use illness as the vehicle for humanizing both the monarchy and the premiership, though I was a bit surprised that Eden’s terrible physical health (following his botched gallbladder operation) and Wilson’s alcoholism weren’t mentioned as well.

Helen Mirren is a delight throughout, especially in the scenes where she converses with a younger version of herself who seems to embody her rebellious, free-spirited streak. The only scene I found grating was the one with Margaret Thatcher — though I found it difficult to tell whether I was reacting more negatively to Thatcher-as-Thatcher or to Haydn Gywnne’s interpretation of her.

It certainly helps to know something about the politics and personalities of the time, but I don’t think it’s a requirement to enjoy the production. I’m not sure how many more encore presentations it will receive, but it’s certainly worth checking out. It’s certainly prompted me to revisit sections of Peter Hennessy’s book on prime ministers, which might well be good supplemental reading for viewers of the play.

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Ministers, Mandarins, and Metafashion

25 September 2013

The suits of Yes Minister is a delightful assessment of sartorial choices (and precisely what coded messages they convey, through the characters who wear them) in my beloved series. Who would have thought that a four-in-hand vs. Windsor knot contrast would reveal so much?

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Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

4 September 2013

It’s been far, far too long since I posted a book review to this blog. To encourage myself to get back in the spirit of things, I’m planning to tackle a series of reviews about Trollope’s Barsetshire novels (which I have just finished) and his Palliser novels (which I am still working my way through). Ideally, I suppose I should start the reviews with the first of the Barsetshire novels, since they technically come before the Palliser novels in chronological order, but apparently I have strong enough feelings on the first Palliser novel to want to make a start with it here.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

The general plot of Can You Forgive Her? revolves around the love and matrimonial choices made by three women: Alice Vavasor, her aunt Arabella Greenow (née Vavasor), and her cousin Lady Glencora Palliser (née M’Cluskie). Alice is engaged to the quiet, kind, and dependable John Grey — whose name almost summarises his general character — but she is faltering at the thought of subsuming her personality and interests to her husband’s opinion of what a good wife should be. Lady Glencora, a young heiress who at her extended family’s insistence was all but shoved into marriage with the colourless Plantagenet Palliser, still finds herself in love with her former beau, the handsome but dangerously spendthrift Burgo Fitzgerald. Only Arabella Greenow seems to find some enjoyment in her life — as a rich widow just on the point of middle age, she keeps up an almost theatrical level of mourning for her late husband even as she stakes her claim to the affections of two rival suitors. As all three women teeter on the edge of making and un-making up their minds about their relationships, and risk placing themselves in the hands of men who might not be best suited to their temperaments or positions in life, Trollope shows the financial and political effects of their choices and their struggles to make the best of their varied (but not entirely dissimilar) situations.

This book, the first in the Palliser series of novels, sets up the personal and political milieu that will span the full six-volume series. As a reworking of Trollope’s unsuccessful play The Noble Jilt, Can You Forgive Her? is comparatively light on politics, at least when it comes to the substance of parliamentary debates and Cabinet-level wheeling and dealing, though it does touch on the difficulty of securing a Commons seat without ready money to spend on courting the voters. All the same, the Houses of Parliament overshadow many of the characters’ actions and decisions, particularly when Plantagenet Palliser must make a bold decision to save his marriage at the (possible) cost of his rising political career. (Of course, since this is only the first book in the series, the modern reader will know that the decision is not quite so life-or-death as it seems to the characters.) And it touches on a theme that will recur, with variations, in later novels: the role that women have in political life, and the spheres in which they can attempt exercise their power to help or hinder the men in their lives.

Though it’s plain that Trollope doesn’t think well of his three heroines’ attempts to stake some claim to personal independence and self-determination, it’s worth noting that the meaning of the book’s title can be read two ways. On the most obvious level, “Can you forgive her?” may be asking the reader to pardon his heroines’ faults, to forgive their trespasses because of their weak, womanly natures. But on a more subtle level, “Can you forgive her?” asks the question “Can you blame these women for wanting to find their own happiness, for seeking out more than the restricted domestic life that awaits them, and for rebelling at being subject to the whims of their bullying or neglectful families?” Can we forgive Arabella Greenow for stringing her suitors along for as long as it takes to judge their characters, taking refuge in the respectability of wealthy widowhood to avoid ending up in another marriage to an uncaring, domineering man? Can we forgive Lady Glencora, under severe domestic pressure to produce an heir, for wanting to run away and give her husband an excuse to divorce her so that he might find a woman who can give him a son? And can we forgive Alice Vavasor, a victim of wanting more control over her own life than a woman of her time and social position might expect to have, for accepting her eventual husband’s proposal almost out of exhaustion with her increasingly unwelcome options? The modern reader may be more likely to ask and respond to the second question, for all that it overlaps the first. And even for a book where Trollope-the-Author voices his objections to his own heroines’ actions, Trollope-the-Writer has created a far more sympathetic portrayal of them than he might have understood.

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Commentary: Sir Humphrey on Newsnight

29 April 2010

As part of Newsnight‘s Election 2010 coverage, Yes, Minister co-creator Sir Anthony Jay has written a set of three new sketches featuring the quintessential civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Henry Goodman (who will be portraying Sir Humphrey in the new Yes, Prime Minister stage play opening in May at the Chichester Festival Theatre). According to the BBC’s description: ‘In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

For now, the clips are available here: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour [to be aired on 4 May].

Overall, I found the writing to be fairly clever, with some good turns of phrase in the best mandarin style. Though it is nigh-impossible to live up to the memory of Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, I would say that Henry Goodman’s portrayal is well up to par — though I do wish he hadn’t said ‘Lib Dem’, which would be far too crude for the Sir Humphrey Appleby I recall. But my primary reservation about these sketches is that they would be a good deal more funny, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original series, if we weren’t told which party’s manifesto was actually being read.

One of the most prized aspects of the series was that it carefully avoided party-political issues in favour of highlighting the underlying conflict between government and administration, an approach that allows it to have continued relevance more than three decades later. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to have Sir Humphrey, always so scrupulous about drawing the line between the sordid world of party politics and the tidy machinery of the Civil Service, offering commentary in this muddled grey area between the policy and the policymakers. Sir Humphrey himself would be the first to say that to the Civil Service, it barely matters what party is in power…or rather, in government, because no party is ever truly in ‘power’ in that sense of the word.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, so perhaps I’m somewhat protective of the original series and resistant to the prospect of its ‘modernization’ in this fashion — even when modernised by the creators. But even setting that aside and attempting to judge the sketches purely on their own merits, they seem somewhat lacking in the classic Yes, Minister message that first attracted my interest.

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Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

2 March 2010

My working knowledge of Britain’s African colonial history comes mostly from my research on Rhodesia before and after the UDI — a case with its own set of peculiar circumstances that do not exactly reflect the British colonial experience its other African possessions. So I’m always interested in books such as the following that may help to fill in the gaps in my education, particularly regarding non-European history.

The London Review of Books, as always, has another good review of this book in conjunction with Caroline Elkins’ more confrontationally named Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

Histories of imperialism and colonialism frequently run into the difficulty of finding and intepreting source materials in a way that balances the stories told by very local, personalised accounts (such as oral histories) and the much broader and more anonymous archival collections. Both aspects are equally crucial to the writing of history, but blending them into a single coherent narrative is no easy task — especially when the narrative involves a history of startling violence, brutality, and contradictory justifications from all parties concerned. So when a work of colonial history comes along that manages to combine excellent research with fluid storytelling, it more than deserves attention from both historians and general readers.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire is one such a book, a tightly-written, hard-hitting account of a particularly grim chapter in Britain’s retreat from empire: the Mau Mau conflict that wracked Kenya in the 1950s and left a trail of killings and brutal judicial and extrajudicial punishments in its wake. Anderson carefully marshals court records, archival materials, contemporary journalism, and other public and private documents such as published memoirs and private letters to shape his history of the conflict. This is no small task, because the Mau Mau conflict’s origins were complicated and multilayered, involving land disputes between and among Kenya’s white and nonwhite populations, an institutionalised regime of racism and tribalism, bitter religious disagreements that dated back many decades, and a general air of semi-benign neglect from the Colonial Office back in London. Anderson manages to pull all of these aspects together in order to depict how long-standing feuds within African communities fueled grudge-killings and guerilla warfare on a massive scale, and how the reactions of the white settlers and British officials only deepened and perpetuated the conflict. This focus on the origins and underpinnings of the conflict ensures that Histories of the Hanged is a highly readable book even for those who are not generally familiar with colonial history.

The Mau Mau conflict — or ‘uprising’, or ’emergency’, or ‘insurrection’, or ‘civil war’, or ‘rebellion’, depending on who you talk to — eventually caused enough concern back in Britain that politicians as disparate in views as Labour MP Barbara Castle and Conservative MP Enoch Powell were united in their condemnation of the colonial authority’s handling of the situation. By the end of the hostilities, about two dozen white Kenyans and several thousand more black Kenyans had been killed in various random attacks and planned massacres, some of which encompassed the inhabitants of entire villages and towns. The justice system added to this number, sending more than a thousand black Kenyans to the gallows — about twice the number executed by the French during their own colonial crisis in Algeria — and rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others in squalid detention camps that more than a few historians have called ‘Britain’s gulag’. And yet even though David Anderson adds his voice to those who condemn the atrocities committed by both sides, Histories of the Hanged is not a book that spends all its time pointing fingers and searching for the guilty parties. Rather, it is more interested in examining the conflict of loyalties that created the political vacuum which allowed the Mau Mau to attract its followers, and the reasons why colonial authorities in Kenya were so quickly overtaken by events. It is a bloody and racially charged history, certainly, and it makes for difficult reading at times. All the same, it is a part of British imperial history that has been overlooked (in some cases, deliberately so) until very recently, and a book like Anderson’s is a welcome insight into the often-confusing background and battles of a bitter civil and colonial war.

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Links: Revolts.co.uk

23 February 2010

Along with my periodic book reviews, I’ve decided to start posting brief recommendations of various Web sites and blogs I consult on at least a semi-regular basis.

I first came across Revolts.co.uk several years ago, when I was working on research into the delicate powerplay involved in the timing of renewing British oil sanctions on Rhodesia. After coming across information on how initial vote over Rhodesian oil sanctions in 1965 had caused a terrible three-way split in the Conservative Party, I became more interested in looking at backbench dissent and rebellion, and parliamentary voting behavior in general. It was wonderful to come across Revolts.co.uk and explore other instances of backbench rebellion frequency, size, and structure — and all in a way that saved me the trouble of poring over Hansard myself.

The site was in hiatus for a time, owing to a loss of research funding, but I was pleased to read in a recent Lords of the Blog post that Revolts.co.uk is back online and looking at voting patterns once again. So it’s now on my links list to remind myself to check it every so often and see what new developments have been posted. If the forthcoming General Election ends in a hung parliament, or very near to one, the site could prove very useful indeed.

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Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope

26 January 2010

This review ended up being more brief than I was expecting it to be, but rather than attempt to pad it out for length I think it makes sense to leave it short.

Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope

In my review of British poet Wendy Cope’s 1986 collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, I mentioned that she has previously expressed a strong dislike of seeing her poems reproduced in full (or in significant part) on the Internet. Once again, I have no problem respecting those wishes, though it does make writing a full review a bit more difficult.

Serious Concerns, published in 1992, is in one sense a direct response to the reviewers and critics of her first poetry collection. Several of the poems address comments that were made about her work. The title poem, ‘Serious Concerns’, skewers a rather banal description of her poetry as being ‘witty’ and ‘unpretentious’ — Cope briefly ponders whether the most appropriate course of action is to try to compose poems that are less witty or more pretentious or both. Jason Strugnell, her literary creation who stands in for any number of contemporary male poets (from T.S. Eliot to Philip Larkin), makes a few appearances with examples of his latest works. But most of Cope’s poems in this collection are not so metafictional; most of them tend to look at relationships, exploring the initial heady feelings of falling in love or being in love, the struggles of trying to keep a difficult relationship going, and even the periods of desperation when it seems like loneliness and solitude are all that is left.

The poems in Serious Concerns usually end up being classified as ‘light verse’, a nebulous description that (as others have said) tends to raise more questions than it answers. Most of the subjects have a deep personal resonance, ranging from the frustrations often felt by the single person at Christmas-time to the uncertainty of what to do with the possessions of a recently deceased elderly loved one. They are indeed serious concerns, described with a seriousness that happens to be hidden or at least partially concealed by the verse. This kind of thought-provoking poetry is what Cope does best — which is what makes Serious Concerns both an excellent continuation of her first collection of poems and a fine selection of verse in its own right.