Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Waiting For Godot: King's Theatre Edinburgh, 18 April 2009

Keen readers of this blog will know that I was born on the day the English language version of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot had its premiere (directed by Peter Hall). Hardly a surprise, then, that I would take an interest in the play: but this production was one of the most keenly-awaited theatrical events of the year, on account of its stellar cast. Godot has four main characters, and in this production they were cast as follows:

Estragon..........................Ian McKellen
Vladimir...........................Patrick Stewart
Pozzo................................Simon Callow
Lucky...............................Ronald Pickup

I'm prepared to bet that all my readers, wherever they are, will have heard of the first three: Ronald Pickup is pretty well-known in Britain (not least for voicing Aslan in a very popular TV version of the Narnia books some years ago).

Last time I reviewed a play I received some anonymous stick for spenidng more time expounding the (probably unfamiliar to most readers) plot than on giving my own impressions. So let's dispose of the plot of Godot: it's the one in which nothing happens, twice. Which may be a soundbite, but isn't far from the truth. Its most famous single line is "They give birth astride of a grave. The light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." Which makes it sound like a piece of bleak existential fare, when in fact it's a very funny play indeed. Here (in some other production) is the other very famous bit, to wit Lucky's speech. He only has one. It goes on a bit, and is something of a tour de..... but enough of my exposition:

So, the Edinburgh production. The design, by Stephen Brimson Lewis, appeared to be part of a bombed-out city. The direction, by Sean Mathias, played to the strengths of all the actors but especially McKellen and Stewart. The humour was underlined without being vulgarised (though the comic boi-n-n-ng sound effect whenever Pozzo sat down in Act One came close to the latter). Pickup was terrific as Lucky, not just when doing his speech but throughout his scenes. The mixture of resentment and resignation he managed to convey, every single time he had to drop his bags to obey some command of Pozzo's before grabbing them up again, is difficult to convey: yet he did it, again and again. Simon Callow is probably best known to general audiences as a comedy actor (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bedrooms and Hallways, Shakespeare In Love) so it will be no surprise that his Act One performance as Pozzo, where the comic elements are to the fore, was first-rate. Those who also know him as a hugely versatile stage actor (he was the original stage Mozart in Amadeus and has played a wide variety of roles in both classical drama and modern politcially-engaged pieces) will not have been surprised that his Act Two Pozzo (who has the "astride of a grave" line was every bit as marvellous, nor that he still managed to be funny when the script called for it.

And so to the two megastars. As far as I can tell they hadn't appeared together on stage before, though X-Men fans will be very well aware that they have done so in film. McKellen is of course most famous as Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings, Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard in various Star Trek series, but I can remember Mckellen being on TV as Richard II and Edward II back in the black & white days, while Stewart became a star on I, Claudius (which also catapulted Derek Jacobi to stardom) as the creepy Sejanus. Neither was remotely magisterial or creepy in Godot: just two tramps, each with a distinctive personality, some of which is written by Beckett but much of which they brought to the roles themselves. The adeptness with which they carried out some of the comic business with hats or trousers, and the agility with which they moved, made you forget that these guys are about 70 years old. Every line was milked for what it contained, be it pathos, humour, philosophical reflection or none of the above, and every line was effortlessly audible. Maybe nothing happens (twice), but nobody was going to be bored when these guys were playing. I was still somewhat jetlagged, with body seven hours behind mind, but not even I felt the least compulsion to check my watch during the play. (To give my body to be burned, St Paul-style, possibly: the seating up in the gods is singularly uncomfortable in the ings. I remember vividly a Midsummer Night's Dream there many years ago with Ken Branagh, Richard Briers and Emma Thompson, not just for the performances but for the cramp that went with them.) One had the same feeling about their on-stage relationship as with Morecambe & Wise: that the warmth between them was based on complete knowledge of each other, and yet the possibility of surprises still existed.

The production tours until the beginning of May when it opens at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London. Go and see it if you can: then you can hold your head up when your friends brag of having seen David Tennant as Hamlet.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Air Force 1, Sensitivity 0

One assumes that the end product of Monday's unfortunate fly-by of the Statue of Liberty in Air Force One* was intended to be a picture of this kind:

The difference, of course, is that Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln didn't run for cover, have heart attacks or go into premature labour when Air Force One* passed over.

When we were in the USA recently I was joking that someone should open a chain of convenience stores called 9-11, where you could buy such essentials as boxcutters or copies of the Koran. (I was however careful not to say this when waiting in line for security at Denver International Airport.....) It seems to me that whoever came up with the "Let's buzz NYC" idea had an equally warped sense of humour and less sense about when to deploy it.

* Yes, I know it's only strictly "Air Force One" when POTUS is on board. Which is why the Boeing 707 carrying disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon was given the different call-sign SAM27000 in mid-flight once Gerald Ford had been sworn in as President back at the White House. (SAM for Special Air Mission, 27000 for the aircraft number.)


Another cartoon from xkcd here.

While the concept is amusing, I can't decide whether it's his suggested X(f) or X(d) value that more efficiently makes me feel old, damned old. (I know, I should probably ask my wife.) Mind you, Edinburgh's population density is only about a quarter of his suggested figure so perhaps they're wrong to a similar degree.......

....which doesn't make me feel quite as ancient. Still, I am 1.45 times the average age of people in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Slow down, you're moving too fast: got to make the typing last....

You know how sometimes you discover that something you'd believed for ages turns out to be a myth? Well, today I discovered that the story of how the QWERTY keyboard was deliberately designed to slow down typists to prevent jams on old mechanical typewriters, and was still around today only because of apathy, is just such a heap of tosh.

Here is a good article from The Economist on a number of "myths of market failure", such as lighthouses, beekeeping and QWERTY. (It's not just of interest to lighthouse-keepers with bees stuck in their manual typewriters.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Youtube blocks one of Weird Al's best

A friend on Facebook has just pointed out that if you click on the link I used a while back to the Youtube video of Star Wars: The Saga Begins by Weird Al Yankovic, you get "This video is not available in your country" (at least, here in the UK you do). It only seems to affect that video, so it was a simple matter to locate an alternative copy on a site that doesn't get arbitrarily buggered about with. At least, not yet.....

Here it is. Have fun.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What would they do with Euripides' "The Bacchae"?

So often, the stories we all love of "bureaucracy gorn mad" turn out to be myths. So it's a relief that this one is not only true, but originates in France so we can laugh at it withoiut guilt.

Even the French government seems to be getting embarrassed by Metrobus's stance.

I haven't found a censored image of the poster, but here's the original.

They Laughed When I Stood Up At The Microphone, But When I Started To Sing....! (*)

(* with thanks to John Caples for inspiring my title.)

While I was in Colorado I read in the papers that a performance on Britain's Got Talent of I Dreamed A Dream (from Les Miserables) had become one of the most-linked Youtube clips of all time, so naturally I had to investigate. Before I show you the clip, here is what Tanya Gold had to say about the programme in The Guardian on Friday.

Having watched the clip I'm inclined to agree with her: though in fairness to Amanda Holden one must point out that she followed up the "everyone was against you" comment with "I honestly think that we were all being very cynical, and I think that's the biggest wake-up call ever".

And here is a article from the Sunday Times in a similar vein.

Here, then, is the clip itself (embedding disabled). I don't even especially like Les Miserables, but I can entirely see why Susan Boyle, despite fitting nobody's preconception of what a singing star should look like, sang her way into show-business history. (And that's without even having won the competition yet.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A couple of songs

A link to a song I didn't know until Persephone enthused about it here. I'm not using her link because (a) it doesn't work and (b) when you find the video she linked the words are hard to make out (Persephone does helpfully print them, though.) This one I assume uses the CD track (from The Honesty Room).

A lovely song from a singer/songwriter of whom I was unaware. Here she is again doing a marvellous cover version of Dave Gilmour's Comfortably Numb:

The best way to fight terror is not to be terrified

I was browsing Norman Geras's blog, partly wondering what had happened to the Normblog Posterity Poll (I found the answer to that here). And immediately beneath that post I found this one, in which Norman seems uncharacteristically dense. He takes John Goekler to task for not understanding

the distinction between dying in an accident, or through illnesses brought on by a lifestyle that you've chosen, or through some other process not deliberately intended to harm, and being done to death for no other reason than that someone wants to kill you - or maybe not even you but just anyone, and you will do

and concludes that

Goekler isn't all that clever.

Perhaps not, but clearly cleverer than Norman on this one. For the person dying, does the distinction Norman sets such store by have the faintest relevance? If I had to die at 10:00 tomorrow it would be of no consolation to me that I would die in an accident rather than a terrorist bombing. Death is death, at least to those on the receiving end, and it is their irrational reactions to the relative likelihood of various forms of death that Goekler is concerned with. If I am to worry about dying (and frankly I consider it a waste of time to do so) then surely it makes more sense to worry about the most likely eventualities, such as slipping and banging my head, or being hit by a car, than the hugely unlikely ones such as being involved in a terrorist attack. If Norman seriously believes that the latter is in some magical way more worthy of concern than the others, then he has been taken in by the fact that deaths by violence are more often reported in the media than car accidents or trips and falls. A common fallacy, and one I wouldn't have expected Norman to have been seduced by. (See my post here for the total number of deaths from terrorism in Europe in 2007 versus the number of people who died in industrial accidents in Britain alone that year.)

In any case, there is clearly nothing to be gained in any rational sense by worrying about one's own death, or anyone else's. (Something Jesus recognised when he advised us to "take no thought for the morrow". ) When it will happen, it will happen. Goekler is absolutely on the ball when he says that the important things are:

... the courage to face whatever comes with dignity and intention, and the strong relationships that assure we will face the future together, and find comfort and meaning in doing so.

Anyone who believes that these things are less important than wasting time and money on the "war on terror", in my opinion, isn't all that clever.

Monday, April 13, 2009

No Redeeming Social Value

I've booked my ticket for Zappa Plays Zappa in Edinburgh in a month or so: indeed, a colleague and I have been carefully sorting out the travel arrangements which will enable us to get back from a union meeting in Birmingham in time for the gig. ZPZ is Dweezil Zappa's tribute to his father Frank: they play the music of Frank and The Mothers Of Invention, from pretty much every period of the band's long history. Frank's music is notoriously complex, so they need to be a highly competent bunch, and Frank was a legendary guitarist. Fortunately Dweezil has inherited all his Dad's guitar-playing skill as well as his band-leading expertise.

Let's have some videos. Here is Dweezil (solo) doing one of his first cover versions of one of his Dad's songs: My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama. (Sorry, Youtube won't let me embed it.) I saw Frank and the Mothers doing this one back in the late 60s at the Palace in Manchester. Dweezil's version is very different from Frank's, but still terrific: and the video is wonderful.

Then here we have ZPZ from a couple of years ago doing one of my favourite Mothers songs, Camarillo Brillo:

And here are the original Mothers, recorded by the BBC at about the time I saw them, doing King Kong:

I have to say the BBC's camerawork has dated far less well than FZ's music. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Made to feel like foreigners in their own country

I normally consider myself quite switched-on to matters of language, so it was with a certain humility that I read this piece at The Hasbara Buster. Not so much, perhaps, that the labelling isn't translated into Arabic, though that's bad enough. No, it's the translation into English instead that seems especially insulting to the hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs.

Sometimes you just can't win

Here's a strange piece in the Jerusalem Post by Sean Gannon. Strange because it suggests that Argentina should not have recently expelled the noted Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson because of its own antisemitic past. But how much more criticism would Argentina have attracted had it refused to deport him? I bet Mr Gannon would have had something unpleasant to say about that in view of Argentina's antisemitic past.

Presumably Sean Gannon feels that Britain shouldn't have gone to war with Hitler because of King John's imprisonment and torture of the English Jews and Edward I's expulsion of them altogether?

Ibrahim ibn Yusuf gives an Argentinian's response here.

Did you think it was only in China that Google censored searches?

This is odd. One of the websites to which I link is that of Norman Finkelstein. As you will see from my sidebar (or from the link in the preceding sentence), it is at www.normanfinkelstein.com. Now if you Google "Norman Finkelstein" you get a lot of hits, but none are for his own website, Fair enough, maybe: but how about if you Google "normanfinkelstein.com"? You still get no hits for the website, though now you get a lot of questions on sites (this first one is very good) asking why Google is censoring the site (which comes up perfectly normally on Yahoo, Altavista, and most other search engines).

Tip of the hat to Jews Sans Frontieres for alerting me to this one.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Big and small - channelling my inner nerd

I mentioned in an earlier post that we can see the West Portal of the Moffat Tunnel from our condo. Here's a picture (from slightly closer!) of what we see.

Especially now I've stood by a level crossing and watched one go past a few feet away, I have grasped the idea that American trains are BIG. The one I watched close up had 6 locos and 105 wagons. And the locos are gigantic if you're used to the merely rather large European ones.

On a smaller scale, I've also been happily watching the very different bird life here. So far the ones I've seen well enough to identify have been American Crows (pretty much like our own), Steller's Jays and Dark-Eyed Juncos (not at all like anything British).

And while I've been adding the bird pictures, another mile-log train has rumbled into the tunnel. Who needs ski-ing?

The origin of the expression "Eating Crow"?

Of course, the USA is full of colourful characters, some more local to where we're staying. My son and I enjoyed a display about John "Liver-Eating" Johnson on a little historical trail in Fraser, CO. Perhaps the strangest fact about him is that his grave is off Wilshire Bvd in Los Angeles, and reads simply

2nd COLO. CAV.

Just imagine him as the Emcee in "Cabaret"....

Jack Wrangler's obituary seems to have been in all the US papers, but not (as far as I can tell) the British ones.

My favourite bit: "Their romance turned tabloid heads". You THINK??

His Wikipedia entry is even better.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Frisbees for peace

In case the last post seemed too totally downbeat about the prospects for reaching across the Israeli-Palestinian divide, especially to children, here is a more heartening story.

An Israeli tries to give something back to the children of Jenin? We can't have that....

When I first read this story on the BBC's website my first thought was to find corroboration, because it seemed altogether too convenient a fit with the BBC's perennial attacks on Palestinians. Sadly, corroboration was all too easy to find, which is depressing. See here, here, here or here.

However interested in peace or dismissive of it successive Israeli governments and Palestinian administrations have been, this story reminds us all that there is a lot of bridge-building to do between the general populations. While I have little doubt that the bulk of the Palestinian and Israeli people want peace and normal relations rather than rhetiric and point-scoring, not everyone is of that view. It's very easy to look at the Israeli extremists in Hebron and their supporters and imagine that everyone on the Palestinian side is less bigoted. Easy, but wrong.

Here is a more upbeat report from the days before the ugly reaction.

Norman Geras has a good comment on the whole affair.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I'm currently blogging from a condo in Winter Park Colorado, where we arrived on Monday night after a very pleasant flight (great views of Greenland) on which I watched The Reader which I'd missed at the cinema. Hilary doesn't adapt well to time zone changes but she's getting there, and I think the rest of us have arrived on Mountain Time now. We got most of a day's ski-ing in yesterday and were all hugely impressed by the snow. None of us is an off-piste powder hound, but compared with the Alps this late in the season the snow quality on all the pistes was amazing. Plus it's less crowded. Something tells me this won't be our last ski trip to the USA.

We get free newspapers in the condo, of which the most interesting are the NYT and the Denver Post (from which I got the material for the preceding post). To British readers, the idea of things being "nixed" by the Colorado Supreme Court is just as amusing as the reports in Indian papers of Micreants" being "nabbed", so we're having fun. As a huge West Wing fan my daughter was overjoyed to discover Goldfish crackers in the shop here (WW in-joke, not really worth enlarging on). On the way up here, my son and I were having just as much fun spotting 18-wheelers, though we managed not to burst out into Convoy. And we're all enjoying watching Union Pacific trains going in and out of the Moffat Tunnel, which we can see from the condo balcony. You may have guessed that it's our first visit to the States.....

I'll get back to normal blogging shortly. (Sorry - just interrupted the post to watch 3 locos and about 100 wagons coming out of theh tunnel....)

Have a real good day.

The Kiss of Life

Rocco Morabito, the guy who took the above photograph and won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography with it, has just died aged 88. I thought the picture deserved wider distribution: i first saw it today in Morabito's obituary in the Denver Post.

Not a bad picture to hang your reputation on: and what a story.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Curse of the Starving Class - Lyceum Theatre 4th April

We'd heard good things of the Lyceum's production of this Sam Shepard play so went along on the strength of them, and enjoyed the evening very much. The play itself isn't one of the great classics: indeed, it could accurately be described as "slight". But the cast gave it all they had, the production was marvellous, and somehow the fact that the play itself was only OK didn't matter.

Curse is a black comedy about a family of poor whites. Weston, the father, is an alcoholic up to his ears in debt. Ella, his wife, is a dreamer who gets taken in by a con man. Wesley, their son, is seemingly rather dumb but in some ways is the most realistic of them all; and Emma the daughter is very smart but ends up using her intelligence to turn to a life of crime. The play is set during a property boom when credit is being pushed by banks and any other seedy moneylenders regardless of the likelihood of repayment (sound familiar?), and its final metaphor of an eagle and a cat locked in battle, with both plunging to their deaths, describes the way that lenders can suddenly find their own survival endangered as their borrowers go under (sound familiar?) So it's no surprise that the Lyceum chose to put the play on now.

The four principals (Christopher Fairbank as Weston, Carla Mendonca as Ella, Christopher Brandon as Wesley and Alice Haig as Emma) were all excellent, with Haig and Fairbank probably the best of the bunch. Yet they were all effortlessly upstaged by a sheep....

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Thank You For The Interview

I've just been listening to a rather interesting interview with Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the artists formerly known as -BB-) on BBC Radio 2's Elaine Paige On Sunday (it was transmitted earlier today). They talk about musicals (that being the main topic of the show) so discuss Chess, Mamma Mia! and Kristina Fran Duvemala. We also get a bit of BAO (Benny Anderssons Orkester) and an Abba rarity (Elaine).

Give it a shot. It should be available until next Sunday.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Il changeait la vie

Do any of my readers have stories like this of pieces of art (or architecture, or music, or….) which changed their sense of what art could be about?

My own journey into art began fairly late and was without any such step changes. But with architecture I did have my eyes opened on my first trip to continental Europe at the age of 12. It wasn't at all an arty or cultural trip, but I did spend some time in Frankfurt. Now I'd seen quite a few medieval English cathedrals, so I reckoned I had a good idea of what a medieval cathedral looked like. And it was nothing like this rocket ship:

And in case you wonder whether the rebuild after fire damage in 1867 made substantial changes, here is the original 14th century job:

which is still very different from anything in England. It certainly made me aware that just because a building is old it doesn't have to be old-fashioned. Not long after that I visited Lincoln cathedral and saw the vaulting in the choir. Regular readers will have seen this picture before, but whoever designed the vault was either high on something or the Captain Beefheart of medieval architecture. Vaulting is usually symmetrical, like this:

or this:

Er, not like this:

It always reminds me of a nestful of baby starlings waiting with mouths agape to be fed.

So: what are your eye-openers?

Remember those Utopian visions in the 1960s where machines did all the work and people had limitless leisure?

I thought this was an interesting proposal, and maybe it is indeed where we'll all end up eventually. There is clearly pain ahead, and it would seem to be a fairer way of spreading it about than simply shedding jobs.

Trade Unions? Women? But they are not mentioned in my military handbook...

After a week in which we saw Iraq reaping the benefits of democracy, now Afghanistan too can benefit from our well-intentioned meddling.

No wonder our European allies are so reluctant to commit the lives of even more of their soldiers to defending this Western puppet against the consequences of his actions. One has to ask in all seriousness, whether America or Britain ever sends in troops to support a government which is actually democratic. I know that often they go in to topple ugly dictatorships, but they always seem to replace them with something as bad or worse. Please could we persuade our respective military academies to stop turning out exquisitely perfected killers who think they have acquired even the slightest notion of how to run a country?

...though in some respects they have a point about the boycott

In fairness, I must link to this excellent piece in the Torontoist which points out a number of problems with the CUPE motion calling for the academic boycott of Israel. The original motion clearly sucked (it would have been better if all academics regardless of origin had been required to condemn the Israeli attack - but not much) and equally clearly has made it difficult to have a proper debate on the rather better present motion, though one might expect professional academics to be up to the task. Good, though, to find one report at least in my Googling of this topic which accepts that there are problems facing Israel/Palestine which originate on the side of Israel as well as that of the Palestinians.

Israeli rail workers dismissed for being Arabs, while some Canadian "trade unionists" cheer.....

Discrimination against Arabs in employment in Israel : who knew?

And read the comments for an explanation of why the policy is indeed racist. "Veteran" means someone conscripted, and while Arabs are eligible for conscription it's Israeli government policy not to call them up. Yes, some volunteer but they aren't classed as veterans, so even though they had put their lives on the line for their country they would be sacked from these railway jobs.

I was alerted to this story by LabourStart news, a general feed of trade union-related stories. The same issue also carried an ad for a fundraising march by Ontario's "Union Members For Israel" . My first thought was that Israel could hardly be in need of their $1,000, before I realised that the guys are in fact a splinter group from the Canadian university teachers' union, marching to oppose an academic boycott of Israel called by the union's Ontario chapter.

Fair enough, they have the right to do that, but my second thought was: bad timing, chaps. because the signal which this march will have sent to their fellow-Canadians, and to fellow trade unionist around the world, is that "Union Members For Israel" feel that it is so important to score points off their colleagues in a piece of infighting that they are prepared to march in support of a government which is sacking workers on racial grounds. They should hang their heads in shame.

Kicking: Against The Pricks

Two women die from domestic violence every week. It really shouldn't take this ad to remind us that there's something wrong about that.

Coincidentally, yesterday my daughter was inspired to fire up her mothballed blog once more, and inspired by the surprising chorus of disapproval she got from some of her student colleagues for daring to voice disquiet with a song lyric which seemed to consider drunkenness as an invitation to sex.

Clearly this recent Scottish campaign didn't get through to some of our duller residents.

World Rat Day - 4th April

A day for rat lovers to do their rat loving thing. Yay!

See here. Also here.