Leninist MPs – or: Westminster’s shocking philistinism

Are our MPs Lenininst?

Today’s Guardian included an article by Martin Kettle from Bayreuth, declaring that:

Our MPs are Lenininst in their belief that politics is all and excludes a rich artistic life. It’s a sign of a failed society

Buxton Opera HouseWell, I can report that at least in deepest Derbyshire, things aren’t so philistine. The opening night of this year’s Buxton Festival was graced by the new (Labour) Chair of Derbyshire County Council, who far from seeming embarrassed, flaunted his allegiance with a striking red jacket. The fare may have been Saint-Saëns and Gounod rather than Wagner, but as someone who tends to Rossini’s view of Wagner (‘great moments but dull quarter hours’), that to my mind was no bad thing. Lenin may not have dared to listen to Beethoven often (poor man) but it seems he also liked plays – last night I saw Ostrovsky’s Too Clever by Half in a suitably manic production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and discovered that in 1918 Lenin attended and admired the Moscow Art Theatre production starring Stanislavski, seeing it ‘as a portrait of the moral and intellectual failings of the society created under the Tsars’. Perhaps that’s what our politicians can do best for culture – provide the butts for satire?

As befits one of the birthplaces of Chartism, Manchester has long been a place where culture and politics mix. For many years the concert hall, home to the Hallé Orchestra, was the Free Trade Hall, built to commemorate a notorious attack on peaceful protest (which led, amongst other things, to the Manchester Guardian and Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy). The hall was the venue for both high culture (Barbirolli etc) and wrestling. Its replacement, the much more comfortable Bridgewater Hall, is a wonderful concert hall but rather tamer.

As for politicians, others here have already indicated that a few cabinet ministers have betrayed a liking for Wagner. Amongst them is Michael Gove, the minister most likely (pace Martin) to lace his speeches with quotations from (in his words) ‘the best that has been written and said’. If that sometimes means misquotations from Keats (it’s ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Michael: and you an English graduate!), I suppose we should be grateful. Mr Gove has even shared his admiration of Antonio Gramsci and declared in the Guardian’s own pages this week that ‘classical Marxists support free schools because they embody the ideal of the soviet, a self-managing institution run by workers in the wider public interest’. Such erudition, you see, Martin! What would your old Dad have made of that? I suspect he might have pointed out that the governance of free schools is hardly as open and free as a soviet, or even one of those local authority schools the Secretary of State appears to despise, despite his nominal responsibility for the education of all students in England. I certainly hope Professor Kettle would have seen off such dubious claims to cultural eclecticism.

Having just posted my two penn’orth to Comment is Free, I spotted that tomorrow’s paper will include a number of letters about the Secretary of State’s claims in Thursday’s edition. These include Professor Norman Thomas:

If free schools are doing well (except for some) because they are free from local authority control and can decide things for themselves, does that mean Gove will now introduce a bill bringing the national curriculum to an end instead of extending it, as he currently proposes, even including pressure on how to teach reading – by synthetic phonics? The national curriculum does not have to be taught in free schools or academies, any way, so why impose it on local authority schools?

Surely a Marxist of Mr Gove’s intelligence cannot be so confused as to advocate freedom for schools and at the same time deny it.

Election drama: Clegg loves Beckett – waiting for Gordo?

Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg declares his admiration for Beckett

Not content with claiming Blake as his favourite poet, today Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg declares in the Guardian that his ‘hero’ is Samuel Beckett. Scarily, he writes: ‘I must have read Waiting for Godot – of course – a hundred times.’ ‘Of course’ it’s good to read Godot – but a hundred times, Nick? I think you must be preparing for a Lib-Lab pact: waiting for Gordo to come along and rescue you from a life on the sidelines. Or will it be David Cameron who gets to be Lucky?

Literary Connections cannot but give credit to a public figure who shows unabashed admiration for a great writers. Furthermore, as Charlotte Higgins pointed out earlier in the week he also ‘adores Schubert and Chopin… Fabulous choices: this man is obviously a big German song fan, with the wonderful Schubert Erlkönig, sung by Fischer-Dieskau, in the line-up, as well as Strauss’s Four Last Songs.’ Cue inevitable joke: ‘As someone said on Twitter: Clegg’s obviously making a Liedership bid.’ Just let’s hope it’s not like Schubert’s last song-cycle – his Schwanengesang (Swan Song).

Playwright’s XI deliver a good line

Cricket, lovely cricket….

Cricket - from Punch Magazine, June 1937
Cricket on the village green: where even failure causes jollity (Punch cartoon from June 1937)

Regular readers (if there are any) may suspect I rarely even glance at the sports pages of the paper. This morning, however, just as I was about to toss the Guardian’s supplement into the recycling bin I caught sight of Frank Keating’s elegant column on the back page. His opening stroke, mentioning Stoppard’s The Real Thing, was followed by further evidence of the ways playwrights throw in allusions to the game. Gems include a reference to the scary brainwashing scene in The Birthday Party which includes the unanswerable question ‘Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?’ (which, Keating adds, “the Germans translated as ‘Who pissed on the Australian gate?'”). There is also a reminder of Jack Rosenthal’s beguiling play, P’tang Yang Kipperbang, woven around the commentaries of John Arlott. I loved to use this TV play with classes who had probably never heard the man himself on the radio.

The online version of Keating’s article has the rather more clumsy headline ‘Playwright’s XI would know how to bowl a good line’. Evidence, perhaps, that the possibility of greater prolixity away from the restrictions of a fixed page width is not always a good thing. To confirm this, today’s G2 supplement has an article about a sporting match headed, in print: ‘It’s just not cricket!’ The online version is the more prosaic ‘Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik: the romance that gripped two nations’. The article, alas, has nothing to match Keating’s inclusion of Beckett’s alleged instruction to imagine the parts of Vladimir and Estragon as ‘batsmen numbers five and six fretfully waiting to begin their innings at a Test Match at Lord’s’.

Cry, God for Harry, England, and Saint Bede?

Shakespeare and our other saints

1599: A Year in the Life of William ShakespeareIt’s St George’s Day again. Last year I was startled to be presented with a synthetic rose (made in China) on behalf of Tameside Council to celebrate England’s patron saint. Today in The Guardian, Ian McMillan reminds us that April 23rd is a deadly day for poets, marking as it does the deaths of not only Shakespeare but also Wordsworth, Cervantes, Vaughan, Brooke and others. He’s staying in today, just in case.

Alice in SunderlandA more cheerful celebration might be to read James Shapiro’s fascinating account in 1599 of the year the Globe was built, Shakespeare completed Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It and drafted Hamlet. Those who are rather troubled by the pushy patriotism of today’s flag wavers should enjoy the reflection by Michael Goldfarb on last night’s Night Waves (BBC Radio 3), in which he points out just how many other countries claim St George (he was Turkish, for a start). For a more appropriate patron saint, he suggests Bede, who died on 26 May 735 – though his feast day, confusingly, is May 25. Sometimes it takes an outsider such as the American Goldfarb, to remind us of the oddities of our customs. (His short contribution isn’t listed on the Night Waves page but starts about 38 minutes into the programme.)

For a quick and colourful account of Bede and much else, take a look at Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, which featured in an earlier post.

‘Playwrights are more important than politicians’

Mark Ravenhill comments in The Guardian: ‘Playwrights are more important than politicians. So why do powerful people mesmerise me?’

He claims: ‘I think what playwrights do is more important than what most politicians do. Being a dramatist isn’t just about writing. That part often takes just a few weeks. But we do spend a long time thinking about how people behave, how they live together, how they might live together better – as well as the great cruelties they are capable of. And we’re constantly testing language, time and space in our work, to extend the possibilities of human experience. Politicians are concerned with the pragmatic business of running the world; artists, meanwhile, dedicate themselves to finding new insights into our existence. Most of the insights are feeble or crackpot – but some are visionary.’ And, as he says, many are about politicians.

Free resources on National Theatre productions

Really useful education packs from National Theatre productions

The National Theatre has some really useful education packs from productions past as well as present – though they’re not very easy to find on the website. The section you need is in the ‘Discover’ section, where you should follow the link to Resource Packs; the Past productions section, in particular, has a long list. Of course Stagework, also from the National Theatre, is excellent and more interactive, but these pages on the main NT site have materials from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Hamlet and Translations.

Raising a storm with ‘The Tempest’

Terrific production of ‘The Tempest’ from Baxter Theatre Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company

If you haven’t already got your tickets to see The Tempest in the production from Baxter Theatre Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, I’d urge you to book now! We saw it at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday and it’s terrific: Antony Sher, John Kani and a cast of South African actors, musicians and puppeteers. Starts with a bang and just gets better! As Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian: ‘Michael Billington has been raving about The Tempest, but don’t worry if you can’t get to Stratford because it’s heading out on tour.’ Read Michael Billington’s 5-star review here. It tours to Richmond, Leeds, Bath, Nottingham and Sheffield – find out more on the RSC site.

Brilliant – catch it if you can!

Baddeley Cake: a happy tradition for Twelfth Night

A festive tradition set up by the first Moses in ‘The School for Scandal’

A happy new year! I have just come across the information in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that the Drury Lane Theatre has for 200 years celebrated this day, 5 January, with cake and wine thanks to the generosity of Robert Baddeley, the first Moses in The School for Scandal. According to the entry, ‘Baddeley… created a small trust whereby every 5 January the Drury Lane company, still in their costumes, receive a glass of punch and slice of cake, known as the ‘Baddeley Cake’. This tradition was still being maintained at the close of the twentieth century.’ Has it survived into the twenty-first? I very much hope so – I’m sure the actors deserve it! The tradition was referred to by Dickens in his Dictionary of London of 1879.

You can see a painting of Baddeley in role as Moses at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool – and online, with helpful notes. He certainly looks a genial soul!