We Could Almost Be Abroad……

IMG_3447Where in the world have I been for the last couple of days?  Well, looking at this photo you might well think it was somewhere outside Britain, (unless of course you recognise it.)  A little chapel on a continental lake, perhaps, or a remote place of pilgrimage to a church rescued from an inundation?

Well, it’s in the Midlands.  It’s Normanton Church  and is all that was left standing above water when this valley was flooded in the 1970s to form Rutland Water, a reservoir providing water to the East Midlands.  It’s a surprising sight in quite an odd place.

It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why the place feels a little bit peculiar; but I think it’s to do with the newness and neatness of the environs.  It’s obviously not natural; it has that inauthentic faux feeling of a golf course, or the sailing ponds created out of the quarry pits beside motorways, pretending it blends naturally into the surrounding environment.

It’s pretty though, and on a sunny day we had a pleasant walk along the tarmac path which, according to the information, is 40km all the way around.  Its popularity with cyclists is evidenced by the hangar like size of the cycle hire franchise.

My curiosity as to its history could only be satisfied once we got home and consulted Mr Google: the information boards along the path were devoted exclusively (and disappointingly repetitively) to the osprey which have been introduced to the area.  It’s almost as if we should believe that it has always been there.  This made me even more curious to know about the engineering and the controversy of its creation.

In the meantime, I quite like the incongruity of the stranded church with all the stones banked around it, and it’s odd proportions because its base is flooded.

‘A Doll’s House’ at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Nora has been petted and indulged her whole life, first by her father and then by her husband.  She makes few decisions, and those that she does make, she expects to have few consequences.  She has done one thing though which will have far reaching effects when her husband finds out about it.  He believes that her desire for money, for additional housekeeping, is to indulge her childish pleasure in shopping.  In fact she needs the cash to pay the interest on a loan she took out to pay for a trip to Italy for her husband’s health.

I believe this is a new translation of the play, and I was watching and listening to the sharp intakes of breath from the audience in response to the most patronising and infantilising things her husband says to Nora, I did wonder how heavily the original Norwegian text had to express the notion of the frivolity of women for a 19th century audience to react to it; because Nora, when we first meet her, is a self-obsessed, irritatingly silly woman.  So irritating that K, my theatre companion, expressed a reluctance to remain in her company for the second half after the interval, until I persuaded her to stay.  The point of Nora is that when she understands that her husband really does see her as only a decorative adjunct to himself, she awakes from her doll like sleep and leaves to grow into herself on her own. It must have been a controversial idea at the time it was written; but still today I heard a conversation in the audience after the play about the wickedness of her leaving her children behind (especially after the murmurs of surprise and approval when they had a real toddler, rather than a rolled up blanket prop on stage in one scene where she was playing with her offspring.)

I enjoyed the play, as, in sharp contrast to my experience of Fences it gave me a portrait of a deeply flawed character who, though her experiences, developed some self-awareness and understanding of her own role in her frailties.  Hattie Morahan as Nora shows her development from silliness to anger as one of slow gradations, her fluting childlike voice gradually changing to one of deep adult power as the drama progresses, until finally she leaves the house slamming the door loudly behind her.  There was also real pleasure and satisfaction in knowing that Nora’s school friend, the sad, widowed Kristine has finally found happiness with the suitor she thought she had lost years before.

The drama is acted out in a clever and intricate revolving set. The doll’s house of the title, it does indeed resemble one of those toys where opening the front reveals tiny details of a home, as well as having more than a passing resemblance to one of those wheels in a hamster’s cage that keeps the pet running, no matter how pointlessly.

It’s about taking responsibility for yourself, a properly occupying your own life, and I found that a surprisingly optimistic message.

‘Fences’ at the Duchess Theatre

2013-08-31 12.29.47This production of August Wilson’s ‘Fences‘ has received universally positive reviews in the press, and those journalists who award star ratings have generally given it four.  It was therefore something of a disappointment that my conversation at the interval with K, my theatre buddy, was on the question of whether this was or was not, in our opinions, as bad as, or worse than ‘August, Osage County’.

It was perhaps the coincidence of the word ‘August’ in the name of Fences‘ playwright and the name of the other play, but Tracy Letts’ work, which I endured at the National Theatre a few years ago, is broadly my low water mark of tedious, over long examinations of family dysfunction in contemporary (ish) US drama.

The result of our discussion was a draw.  K thought Fences was worse, I disagreed (but then I did truly loathe Osage County).

This was the first August Wilson play I have seen, although K had seen ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ in New York, coincidentally on the famous occasion, in 2009 or thereabouts, when POTUS took FLOTUS on a date night to the theatre, making it, K, observed, quite difficult to leave at the interval, even though she didn’t care for the play.

Having said all of that, we did stay and watch ‘Fences’ through to the end.  The acting in the production was very good; Lenny Henry does occupy the stage with confidence, including great moments of stillness, and creates a blustering, unsympathetic character very effectively; and Tanya Moodie as his wife had a fantastic voice and tone.

The problem for me, was the play.  It was a portrait of a self obsessed, self pitying, disappointed man, and the damage he did to the people associated with him.  There was no development of that character other than the passage of time and the revelation of even more unpalatable events. He wasn’t tragic in that he had no sense of his own fallibility and frailty, and appeared to learn nothing over the course of the play.  He gave some really self pitying speeches, punctuated with threats to his sons and his wife.  It was a bleak portrait of a particularly nasty type of a man.

It was also perhaps unfortunate that it seemed that many members of the audience had come expecting to see a comedy, and therefore, primed for a laugh, started rattling away as soon as Henry appeared on stage, and continued periodically, even at astonishingly inappropriate moments.

All those four stars are still a mystery to me.

Benign Neglect

IMG_3440The reluctant gardener’s focus has been on tending the cropping plants, watering things in pots, and keeping the lawns respectable, she hasn’t paid much attention to the rest of the beds.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to appreciate there.

I don’t know what these flowers are called, but they are a popular perennial in the gardens hereabouts; or maybe they’re popular everywhere, it’s just that I don’t notice them, or can’t see into so many gardens elsewhere.  They appear to require no particular care, and sprout out of the bases of walls and other tight places, nodding their orange and golden heads through summer to autumn, as gradually the buds on each spear open into flower.

In this garden they appear to be thriving in amongst lots of other flowering things which are generally a little bit neglected, but may be all the better and brighter for it.

Benign neglect might be the best implement in the reluctant gardener’s tool box.

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Return of the Reluctant Gardener

2013-08-23 09.09.25After my urban break at the Festivals in Edinburgh, I am back as the temporary reluctant gardener.

Everything had continued growing in my absence of course, but now the gallons of water poured and time spent communing with the plants in the greenhouse are bearing fruit.  It’s mainly down to the unusually warm and sunny summer we’ve had that the tomatoes are ripening on the vine.  It’s much more normal to have rows of fruit that are turning a little yellowish orange on windowsills, their sides pressed against the glass in the hope of catching a little drop of sunshine to turn them a little red on one side, and for us to have been looking for recipes involving quantities of green tomatoes.

Not this year; and it’s really quite exciting, rummaging through all the foliage to find the little red globes.  There’s already a few more than we’ve been able to keep up with.  The cucumbers are slowing down production, only a couple a day, rather than the four or five which had been their rate earlier in the month, but the tomatoes are now revving up to overtake them.  Take into account that the runner beans have now started producing at the rate of just under a pound a day, and you’ll have a fair idea of what we’ve been eating for dinner.

Not only has the reluctant gardener been harvesting, I’ve even been mowing the verge outside the house.  There’s a stretch of grass between the pavement and the road in front of every house in the town.  It’s part of the public highway but as the Council mow it about once every 5 years, it has, over time, gradually and without anyone saying anything become part of what each householder contributes to the community.

It’s surprising how few houses have untidy verges.  At some point or another, everyone is out there mowing this strip of greenery.  Some take an astonishing amount of care with it, with neat, square and weed-free edges.  Where one stretch of grass runs alongside two properties, the boundary line is respected, so, as in our case, at the point on the pavement in line with the fence, there is a clear demarcation line: the neat neighbour’s immaculate mowing stops and our more haphazard approach begins.

I have to admit that my gardening reluctance reaches its apogee with it comes to the verge mowing.  The cable for the electric mower doesn’t stretch far enough, so I have to use the ‘big’ petrol machine.  It’s arduous to start, requiring just the right energy, speed and angle pulling on the starter string thing, and then it roars away at high speed (and worries me that I’m going to somehow gouge out the neat neighbour grass when I have to turn it around at the invisible boundary line).  But it’s done now; and the grass while a bit scruffy, is shorter, and we can hold our heads up in the street again.

Not Quite Finished with Edinburgh

I didn’t take masses of photographs during my time at the Edinburgh Festivals, because mostly I was inside being entertained.  But I have come away with an eclectic little collection…..

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An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 3

Day 3 introduced some ballet to my Festival diet, spiced with another bookish discussion.

In fact I went to two separate performances by Scottish Ballet which formed part of their Ballet Odyssey weekend programme.  In the morning we went watched 5 duets, sitting on temporary seats constructed on the stage, such had the safety curtain not been down we wold have been looking straight out into the auditorium.  The theme for the weekend was for dance to be stripped down to its bare minimum, so the music was recorded and there was minimal staging.  Instead, from the second row of the stand, we were within 10 feet of each pair of dancers.

Ballet is another of those things I know very little about, and even though I always looks for narrative in any piece, the mime and significance of dance gesture usually passes me by.  What I could see, sitting so close, was the energy and strength of the performers, all those sinews stretching, all that core strength.

I was never one of those little girls who dreamed of being a dancer, for a start I can’t point my toes, and for another, I was far too tall and the girls who went to dance classes were those tiny, skinny girls.  This might be one of the reasons that the elfin ballerinas on stage don’t really engage me, no matter how dainty.  So it is perhaps not surprising that the duet I enjoyed the most was one performed to Rachmaninov, by a ballerina as tall as her partner, shapely and athletic; I could see the story here too, of them finding romance together after a bashful, hesitant start.

Of the five duets, three were of a traditional style, and two were more modern, choreographed around soundscape rhythms rather than melodic music.  In one, the ballerina’s feet never touched the ground, and she was held by or entwined around her partner for the whole piece.  In the other, the dancers performed repetitive mechanistic movements in time to an insistent beat.  I enjoyed it all, but a significant part of that enjoyment was in being able to see such intensity of concentration and effort close by.

In line with the idea of Odyssey, after the duets, we were led to the foyer of the Festival Theatre to watch a new work danced to a mash up of noise and disco.

I’m very interested to compare my reaction to these pieces, to the circus acrobatic performers we have tickets to see on Monday evening….

On the walk back from the Old Town to the New Town for the Book Festival event, we walked along part of the Royal Mile as I had yet to see any of the Big Five street performers I have set myself as my safari objective– a juggler, a stilt walker, a unicyclist, a fire eater and a tap dancing string quartet. I saw some, and turned down a score of leaflets advertising shows. There is some category debate: does two unicyclist jugglers count as one or two?  I’ll have ironed this out by the end of my Festival experience.

Back at the Book Festival we went to listen to Amit Chaudhuri talk about his book on Calcutta.  During the talk he touched on the idea in Bengal that the concept of the perfect conversation is one that wanders from one subject to any other, and will give equal weight to the discussion of a cup of tea or the political agenda of the government.  This meandering, expansive philosophy of discussion was apparent in his own way of speaking.  It was a little unfortunate that because the chairman of the event didn’t guide the conversation more actively, all the time was gone before there had been any questions from the audience.

After more refreshment breaks and a little writing, we returned to the Festival Theatre for Scottish Ballet’s The Rite of Spring.  Taking the ideas of ritual, division and religious fundamentalism, new choreography has been created for three dancers on a sparse white stage with curved up walls confining the dance space to the centre of the empty stage.  I wasn’t sure I understood much of this, but, as I suspected, this morning some of the images are still in my mind’s eye.

In the first part, two brothers, dressed in long black skirts, fight and argue and appear to try to escape the confines of their environment.  The leaping and outstretched limbs of the dancers created big bold geometric shapes against the white background.  It is only when the woman, Faith, appears, a sort of flitting Tinkerbell in brilliant white, that you see that the stage isn’t that white after all.  The brothers fight over Faith.

In the second half, one man is a prisoner of the other.  Now one is dressed only in his underwear and the other in army fatigues and black boots; while faith waves seductively from the sidelines.  There is a great deal of mimed brutality and violence, including a black bag over the head of the prisoner.  There was something about this section that I found disturbing, making me feel voyeuristic and uncomfortable; but it did accentuate the violence inherent in the music.

I’ll be back on the Fringe tomorrow…..

Two Shots

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A number of the blogs I read regularly have been showcasing two photographs of the same thing; some have been trying different angles, others portrait versus landscape, or wide angle and close-up.  It makes for interesting viewing; it can challenge the ideas of what makes a good photograph.

The reluctant gardener had a go with her camera, not sure of these are weeds or nurtured plants; but they’re coming through the fence.

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Everything but the Fuchsia

IMG_3344Only fuchsias are worth saving.

At a recent workshop run by my friend Nina she offered several sentences taken from gardening books as the prompt for a spell of writing.  While many of the sentences were amusing, in fact so deliciously amusing that we were a little at risk of spending too much time enjoying them, or wondering at their out of context profundity, than writing our own new words….. If you keep chicken you’re ahead of the game; spend as much as you can afford; this linguistic dithering is offensive and ought to be straightened out…… 

For me there was only one obvious choice.  Only fuchsias are worth saving.  It has a certain gnomic potency, a rule to live by……. something straight out of the screenplay for Being There.  It did however also generate an immediate picture in my head, and it was a picture of this fuchsia.  It’s a bold, rather brassy shrub, with large double purple and red flowers, ballerinas with full skirts, dancing in great troupes all summer long.  I now have a half written short story for which this was the jumping off point.

The weather this summer has been perfect for prolific flowers, and now I’ve overcome my childhood habit of popping the buds between my thumb and forefinger before they were ready, they are blooming in their own time.

Isn’t ‘fuchsia’ an interesting word?  It was only when I was writing this that I realised I didn’t know how to spell it.  According to one entry I found online (when I was checking) it is frequently misspelt fushcia, presumably by people like me, who sort of know the letters that are in there and try to arrange them so that they reflect the usual pronunciation.  And we’re all wrong.  But now, I think, I’ll remember it.  Maybe.

The Start of the Tomato Harvest

IMG_3401The reluctant gardener is back, watering and keeping an eye on the plants.  The cucumbers are still flourishing, and it’s continues to be a rare meal in which they do not feature, however, the tomatoes will soon be rivalling their fecundity.

This probably doesn’t look like much to those of you who live in warm, sunny climates, but in the unpredictable weather of the West of Scotland these small tomatoes, all 2 and a half ounces of them, represents something of a miracle of nature, ripening on the vine, as they did.  They are the vanguard of what looks like potentially a bumper harvest, but in their reddy orangeness were a surprise discovery when I was bending down to water the plants.

Something about the flamboyance of the stalks made me photograph them, and even suggested, for a brief moment, the idea of sketching them.

Enthusiasm may flag when the crop glut comes, but for the moment, the thrill of discovery remains.

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