Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Claro, hablo castellano!

Tomorrow I start for Spain; a week in Catalonia. As one of my favourite parts of going on holiday is planning which books to take.

This is what’s accompanying me (you might notice a curious lack of Medieval and Renaissance titles):

As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee

A birthday gift from a friend. Lee’s autobiography from his journeys in Spain in 1934.

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell

A classic of the Spanish Civil War. Long overdue.

The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing - W. Somerset Maugham

The part of which concerns Spain. Trips to China for reading variation.

After the Death of Don Juan - Sylvia Townsend Warner

An accidental find. I’m a fan of Sylvia’s, and this was written during the Civil War and apparently reflects some of the turmoil in against the backdrop of eighteenth century Spain.

Hemingway’s For whom the Bell Tolls I read in Oxford. Am very much considering – as an antidote to overindulgence – Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, but we’ll see what the good ole bags can hold. Sadly missing from the cache is Don Quixote and Federico Garcia Lorca, but perhaps I will find English books in Barcelona…

I've never been to the Mediterranean and so will be taking notes. Back in a week.

Summering in Somerset

The Archers is real. I walked into the midst of it in Milverton a few weeks ago. A and I went with our friend L to visit her home in a village in Somerset. L’s mother is a popular children’s author and, even coming from Oxford, A and I acknowledged the utter unreality of life in a manor hour in Somerset during a week of fete-ing and festivities.

The Old House, as the Milvertonians call it, was once the house of the bishops of Taunton and Deane, including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury from – to – during the reigns of Henry VIII and his son Edward, and executed under Mary. The house has recently come into some excitement as, during a remodelling, a rare mural of Henry – somewhat caricatured and perhaps hastily covered up when the political climate rapidly changed - was discovered behind the plastering in the hall. For the 10 Parishes festival and in tribute to the presence of Henry, L’s mother wrote a play dramatizing the King’s Great Matter, starring the village Amateur Dramatic Society and exhibiting it in the Hall, under Henry’s wary, challenging and somewhat syphilis-y eyes.

To walk into the hall, to look up to see Henry throned and imperious, one feels under the influence. All who walk into the hall, staring at the ruddy tints and curlicues and half uncovered evangelists, admit it.

The house was gorgeously anachronistic bric-a-brac of Tudor and modern, aesthetic and utilitarian. We arrived while the marquee was being set-up on the ‘tennis-court’ and were introduced to the locals, who had pitched in enthusiastically. A and I were Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, introduced in medias res to the vividness of village life. And having dream-sequence hours where the sounds of a harp floated through the air as we sit beside the fire in the library eating smores and strawberries and cream, watching the Brit cult classic Withnail & I.

On Saturday we greeted the sun, attended an African dance workshop, walked through a bean field and through an apple orchard, visited local artists, and met a Lady who sold antiques and said ‘chukken’ to describe the domestic fowl.

It culminated in a fantasy ball in the local assembly hall to the surprisingly groovy sounds of Louis & the Iguanas. I have this to say about Milvertonians: they can rock. Every person attending from ten to sixty years of age was dancing with all their might to funk, jazz, and R n’ B, without any self-consciousness or reticence. The actor from the King’s Great Matter, still in his padded Henry costume, meandered over to us around ‘Superstitious’ and waggled his feathered hat and pointed his buckled and festooned shoes. This same actor could not put off his costume, or his newly discovered Henryisms.

On Sunday the nearby village of Wivilescombe (or ‘Wivey’, to locals) was hosting a parade.

Without question, and with great desire for tea cosies, cream tea, luxurious antiques, bacon baps, local ciders, and little children dressed up like Vikings, St. George (and his dragon), and Darth Vader, we went.

And this is a tribute to Somerset village life: I recognized many people at the fair from Milverton, from Louis & the Iguanas, from African dance class, from putting up the marquee (I'm looking at you crazy curly-haired lady all in orange, dancing hard to ska on Saturday and at the head of the English dragon posse in turquoise on Sunday.) These are people who do things, who find village life and the community it offers significant. So they show up. Of course, many Milvertonians are newcomers. They have intentionally chosen to live here, and as such, are committed to making the most of it.

On Sunday evening we watched the play from the back of a very crowded hall full of people with double-barrelled names and arch accents and Midsomer Murders faces. One woman who couldn’t get a seat (tickets had been sold out for three weeks) walked to see the mural of Henry and said ‘One feels something when one looks at him, doesn’t one?’

And after the play, when the cast and guests were mingling and enjoying the thrill of victory, we huddled in the kitchen with tea and red wine and heard an impromptu concert from the magnificent local duo of violin and double bass from teenage brothers who had scored ‘The King’s Great Matter’ with the wonderful ‘God & My Conscience’. Ben and Alfie Weedon will go places.

And so suddenly, with a gust of wind, we were back in Taunton and onto a train. Back to reality - for today.

Spain to come.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Finally finished David Foster Wallace's Pale King and my review is up on the Cherwell website here . DFW has become something of a summer obsession, so this conclusion is satisfying.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Contrary Gardening

The British film director Mike Leigh, as I understand it, has a reputation for depressing British naturalistic dramas (at least in HMC discourse). Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), with its ebullient heroine, Poppy, traversing a shabby London accompanied by wind instruments, had its frightening moments (Poppy in a car with a mentally unstable driving instructor) but resolved itself with Poppy and her friend swanning around in a rowboat.
Another Year (2010) seemed more of a gamble.

We were promised a cheerful movie with a bit of melancholy. It began hopefully. As the title suggests, the film is structured by the seasons. Spring begins - after a medical interview with a grim-faced woman (Imelda Staunton) who has trouble sleeping and cannot remember ever being happy - with a long-married couple working peacefully in an allotment. The gardening threads through the film and provides a competent metaphor for a script dealing with the relations between people. At the nexus of the web of relationship is Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, and his stork-eyed counsellor wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and it is a happy marriage. Their home seems a happy beacon of light and warmth as they offer hospitality to friends whose lives require, one might say, pruning. Mary, a single woman who works with Gerri, talks and drinks too much, and vibrates with bizarre anxious energy. She falls asleep, maudlin, in Tom and Gerri’s son’s room, with the couple looking on, sharing pregnant glances. Tom’s friend Ken from Yorkshire drinks and eats too much and cries into his hands.

But towards the end of the film the couple’s influence, which seems benign and bettering at the beginning, seems ennabling and manipulative. In the last scene of the last section, Winter, Mary intrudes uninvited after offending the family, and shivering, blinking, and spiritually disintegrated, begs Gerre for a former friendship. Gerri withholds austerely and Mary looks like less of an inconvenience than a housedog. She has been trained to rely on Gerri and Tom and, without their benevolence, is lost and utterly alone. Mary, insomniac and unhappy, is the Staunton-character, and the narrative has come full-circle. Only, instead of Gerri as healer (she treated ‘Staunton’), she is an enabler, a sanctimonious observer who speaks calmly and parentally: ‘I’m not angry with you, Mary. Just disappointed.’ The film ends with Mary’s weary and wary face twitching imperturbably as the family discusses their traveling adventures, leaving Mary outside the enchanted circle, to look on with – no longer envy – but a dying, wintering, reiterated sense of aloneness.

The possible romanticism present in Happy-Go-Lucky was undone in Another Year. The former trumpeted the enchanted freedom of an energetic single in Camden; the latter featured a single – and other (self-)marginalized characters – obliterated by the happy exclusion of a couple whose influence wavers uncomfortably between friendship and condescension. Leigh’s film didn’t leave me comforted, but sad, cold, melancholic, and impressed.