Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Judith Kerr and Other Heroes

A highlight of last week was the encore broadcast performance of Coriolanus - the Donmar Warehouse production, featuring Tom Hiddleston, Mark Gatiss and Hadley Fraser. I was fortunate enough to see the production live, back in January 2014, and I really enjoyed being able to see it again, and to realise once more what stunning actors Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss are.

Then on Friday, came the start of the Bath Children's Literature Festival, now in its 9th year. The first event, and the first I booked when the brochure came out, was with Judith Kerr.

Her 'Mog' books are some of the earliest books I remember reading, as a child, and then when I was older, her book 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' was an early introduction to the history of Nazi Germany, and experience of Jewish refugees, and I then read the other 2 books in the trilogy when I was rather older.

This is the third time that Kerr has been booked to appear at the Festival, but on each of the previous occasions she had to cancel due to poor health.

So, I was particularly keen to see her this time, and really pleased that was able to make it (she turned 92 this summer, so its hardly surprising that she's not always able to make it to events!)

She was interviewed by Julia Eccleshare (former Children's Book Editor of the Guardian), and it was an interesting evening. She was officially publicising her most recent book,  'Mister Cleghorn's Seal'  which is a short novel for older children, abut a man who adopts a seal. She explained that had wanted to do a book with lots of pencil drawings, and to suit the age where children can read. in her words "they are too old for picture books but a 250 novel is a bit daunting - the gap between Dr Seuss and Sherlock Holmes". 

Judith Kerr : 25.09.2015
She went on to explain that the book was inspired by an incident in her father's life - he ended up with a baby seal after it's mother was killed in a cull, and he decided to take it home rather than allow it to be killed. She described how he took it by train from Normandy to Berlin, attempting to feed it on a mixture of milk and cod liver oil, before arriving in Berlin and taking a taxi to a restaurant, as he had run out of his milk mixture! 

In real life, things didn't end well for the seal,I think the fictional one probably does better!

Kerr's love and admiration for her father and his skills as a story teller came through loud and clear. Moving on, she spoke about Mog - who was a real cat, the first that she had, when she and her husband first had a home with a garden, and gave us a number of anecdotes about various cats, including the current one who has trained Kerr to open the door for her (after looking out through the cat flap)!

Which led on to The Tiger Who Came to Tea . Julia Eccleshare raised the fact that Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger represents Kerr's memory of, and fear of the Nazis - Kerr immediately responded that she loves Rosen and is happy for him to say anything he likes, but that the Tiger was a story for her daughter incorporating all of her daughter's favourite things, and was made up when her husband was, unusually working away from home so she and her children were lonely and wanted someone, anyone, to visit. She also explained that she was able to then make the story into a book once both of the children were in school and she had time.

Kerr than answered questions from the audience. She explained that she considered herself to be an illustrator first, and writer second, and that she felt she had learned a lot about writing from her husband (Scriptwriter Nigel Kneale) and her son (novelist Matthew Kneale). She also explained that she thinks in English, and that while she does speak French and German can only write (books) in English. She wrote When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit because she wanted to tell her children about her own childhood, and that she was surprised when it was published, in part because it did not conform with what might be expected; that normally in children's books (at least at that time) parents were remote but could do anything, but her own parents were not like that, and that despite everything, she had a happy childhood. She also spoke at some length about her experience of being a refugee, her feeling of gratitude to Britain for letting her family in and saving their lives, and commenting that even during the London Blitz, with people dying every night, no one was cruel or offensive to her parents (who both had strong, and obvious German accents). She was asked about the current refugee crisis and simply said that she did not think that the scenarios were the same, as the sheer numbers of people now involved are so much greater, and she doesn't see there being an easy or obvious answer.

Finally, she was asked by a young girl whether there really was a Pink Rabbit, and whether it was left behind. And she confirmed that yes, there was, and it was left behind. But, she added, "I've got over it".

Over all, she came across as a wonderful, witty and optimistic person - I would have loved to have had the opportunity to say hello but (understandably) she did not do a signing, but I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to hear her speak. It was a fun evening.

Monday, 28 September 2015

What I Did on My Holidays

I have had some time off, and while I didn't go away on holiday, per se, I did go down to Devon and spent several days at my parents' house.

On one day, when it stopped raining, I went down to Woolacombe and to Barracane Bay.

The sea was flat as a pancake (which didn't stop some hopeful surfers from going in!) and from time to time the sun came out, briefly.

I was able to go for a short walk and enjoyed a picnic sitting on the cliff overlooking the bay. It was a very pleasant, restful day.

My parents came home on Monday, and as it was a grey and drizzly day I wasn't tempted out, so instead I stayed home, and baked, and made dinner, and read.

It was good to catch up with my parents, and we decided, a day or two later, to go to Exmoor Zoo,which is just down the road, and which they'd never visited!

It is small, for a zoo, but seems well kept, and the animals seem content. They have 3 cheetahs, who were fed during our visit.

They also have some penguins, and pelicans (and ducks and seagulls, but I think those are simply opportunistic and not part of the zoo's own complement!

And otters. I do love the otters.

There were also some very dramatic Scarlet Ibises, and a rather bedraggled peacock (I think he had been moulting. His head was beautiful, but he had no tail to speak of. 

There was also a peahen (well, there were several) but one with a single chick; we met them several times as we were walking around, they are not confined at all.

We had an an enjoyable day wandering around, and with it being a greyish weekday there were not too many other people around.

And as well as the days out, I also spent a lot of time pottering around my parents home, reading some of their books, watching their TV and picking runner beans in their garden.

It was a pleasant, low-key way to spend an extended weekend!

Monday, 21 September 2015

East isEast

I've somehow missed seeing the film, East is Eastbut I had heard good things about it, and also about the live stage version, which was previously on at Trafalgar Studios in London, which seems to produce consistently good theatre.

So when I saw it was coming to Bath, of course I booked a ticket. And was glad I had.

The play follows the Khan family, George Khan (Simon Nagra), a Pakistani Muslim, his White British Wife Ella (Pauline McLynn) and 6 of their 7 children, living in Salford in the 1970s, and dealing with issues of family and identity, and the strains both impose.

George, despite having lived in the UK for over 30 years, and married an Englishwoman, wants a traditionally dutiful and obedient wife and children, including expecting his children to accept his choices for them for marriage.

It's  frequently very funny,  often disturbing (quite apart from the off-stage exile of his eldest son for refusing an arranged marriage, there is also domestic violence, for instance), and very well-written.

The cast is extremely strong - particularly Adam Karim, as Sajit, who spends most of the play wearing a parka so has to perform from inside a hood, without out being able to see his face.

It was also nice to see a much more diverse audience than usual at the theatre! 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Time Off

I've got some time off work, but I'm not going away,partly as I'm not organised enough, partly because I'm too tired and just want to unwind, and partly because I spent all my money on having work done to my house.

However,I do have various fun things lined up for my holiday, and I'm also aiming to get things done round the house - for instance, buying and putting up curtain rails (and curtains), and unpacking more of the books.

On Monday I got to spend the day with one of my oldest, closest friends. We agreed to meet up in Cardiff, which both of us could readily get to by train, and I was looking forward to a relaxing day pootling round the city centre, perhaps visiting the pier and looking at nice views of the sea.

It didn't work out quite that way.

To start with, it was a very, very, wet morning, and the traffic was absolutely horrendous, which meant that despite having left myself about twice a much extra time as I thought I would need to get to the station, I missed the train. (I worked out, during the unexpected spare time I had while waiting for the next train, that I had averaged 11 m.p.h on my drive in...)

Sadly there's only one train an hour, so I arrived an hour later than planned, and it turned out that it was wet and windy in Cardiff, too.

However, we walked from the station to the Wales Millennium Centre, which is an absolutely beautiful building, not just the stunning front, but the rest of the exterior, which features lots of (presumably Welsh!) slate

No sign of Captain Jack Harkness or Torchwood, sadly. Clearly that perception filter is still working! 

We had lunch at the Millennium centre, (very nice tapas for J and I, and wearable broccoli and yogurt for A (J's little boy, who is 6 months old. He is approaching solid food with enthusiasm. Fortunately J had brought him a change of clothes!)

We then went back into the city centre, where we found a rather nice clock, complete with 3 (presumably blind?) mice..
And we got rained on some more, and then had coffee and cakes, and there was a lot of chatting, and lot of baby-appreciation, and generally, despite the late start and the nasty weather, a good time was had.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Another weekend

On Friday, I had the unusual experience of having to go to a Beer Festival for work. Which was interesting, and quite entertaining. We had sponsored one of the barrels, so naturally we had to go along to say hello, and to make sure that they were treating our beer well. 
They were, although (whisper it) I found two other beers which I liked better than the one we sponsored. Clearly I shall have to consider more carefully next year when the time comes to pick one to sponsor (assuming, of course,that we do it again) 

And it was nice to relax and unwind a little with a colleague. Especially as he agreed to be the designated driver!

Then on Saturday night,  after a grey and drizzly day, during which I managed to do a little bit of housework, and cut the grass because it really, really needed it, despite being a bit too damp for proper lawn-mowing, and failed to go shopping for curtain rails because I couldn't face the thought of B&Q, I headed into Bath, to the Theatre Royal, to see 'Mrs Henderson Presents', a brand new musical version of the film, based on the true story of the Windmill Theatre.

It was fun - it could have used a larger cast, so they could make the big ensemble numbers bigger, with more chorus girls, and I was, I admit, disappointed to see that, unlike in the film, the gentlemen of the cast were only seen from the rear during the 'everyone gets naked' scene.

There's a strong cast, minimal plot, catchy songs, and lots of naked women.

Tracie Bennett plays Mrs Henderson, and is appropriately tart and posh. 

Emma Williams   appeared as Maureen, tea-lady turned performer.

I particularly enjoyed Graham Hoadly's Lord Chancellor, perfectly stuffy, and with more than a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. (and, of course, the freemasons...)

This show premiered in Bath, but I think is going to be seen in London later this year. Its a lot of fun. A very good evening out. And it was clear thatthe entire audie ce was enjoying itself!

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Trip to Dismaland

I don't live all that far from Weston-Super-Mare, although I very rarely visit, but when I saw that Banksy (and others) had created a pop-up amusement park there, I thought it was worth a visit.

Tickets are not easy to get.. either you go to Weston and queue for hours, and maybe you get in and maybe you don't, or you try to catch the website in one of the brief moments when tickets are on sale and available, and pre-book. 

Which was what I managed to do. So on Sunday, I set off on my way to Weston. 

It started to rain as I left the house, which seemed appropriate, and as I got closer to Weston I found myself feeling more nervous, which I rather think is due to the fact the only reason I ever used to go to Weston was for driving lessons, and to take my test (we had to go to Weston as we didn't have any roundabouts or dual carriage ways nearer home). 

However, on this occasion, no-one made me do an emergency stop, or a three point turn, although I did have to do some reverse parking on a bit of wasteland which had been co-opted by the council as a spare car park.

It was still pretty grey and grim when I arrived in Weston, (to be fair, it's pretty grim even in glorious sunshine. . it is a town which would like to grow up to be Blackpool, but can't quite make it.. It is a perfect venue for a subversive theme park.

It starts with a queue (even if you have pre-booked), but I had brought a book for that. Then once you get through the queue there is an airport-style security checkpoint, with meticulously hand-crafted cardboard surveillance cameras and x-ray machines, and convincingly grumpy 'police' who randomly take people aside to search, and to question for offences such as smiling or looking cheerful (while telling other attendees to 'move on, nothing to see')  Accompanied by nervous laughter from those selected. . .

Once inside, things get even more interesting.

Stallion : Ben Long
There is a magical castle (a little battered, of course) and some amazing, gigantic sculptures, including the Stallion made entirely from scaffolding, which I loved, and a pair of articulated tanker lorries which were either dancing or mating...
Big Rig Jig : Mike Ross
There are sideshows - where you can try to win an anvil at an anvil-shy (like a coconut-shy, but with anvils..) or try to catch plastic duckies (dead ones, from a pool with an oil-soaked pelican in the centre, of course) 
There is a ferris wheel, and one can play mini-gulf  (like mini-golf, but with added oil-based war)

There is also a merry-go-round, which is almost normal, (and available for the children to ride on)  until you look closely, and realise that there is already one passenger on the roundabout...

And then there is extra art. There is a pickled unicorn, by Damien Hirst, some of the most disturbing crockery you are ever likely to see, by Ronit Baranga, not to mention some trophy heads which are a worrying mash-up of wedding cake, false teeth and great, curving horns..

In a another gallery there is more art, including an embroidered car, a mushroom-cloud of a tree house (or perhaps a tree-house of a mushroom cloud), by Deitrich Wegner, and a perfect, macabre fairground horse.

It is here, too, that one of Banky's own pieces (Mickey Mouse engulfed by a snake) is to be found,  along with lots of other art, some amusing, some disturbing, almost all thought-provoking. (I enjoyed Kate Macdowell's box of mice (each with it's own human ear), and Jessica Harrison's china tattooed ladies.

Did I mention Death?  He is there, too, spinning around on the dodgems, to a raucous rendition of 'Staying Alive'.

There is a lot more, too. It's all weirdly fascinating, often depressing, in places thought-provoking and in others surprisingly funny. 

And the determinedly grim and grumpy staff are a constant reminder of how any sane person would be, if working in an amusement park and not contractually required to smile...!

I had reservations about going, and I nearly decides against it when I saw the queue, but I am glad I persevered.

 (more photos on Flickr if you are interested)

Oh, and then after leaving Dismaland, by way of contrast I visited the Sand Sculpture festival, which was not seeking to be subversive or controversial at all. It was weird.