Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The last Last Word

The fantastic thing about these monologues has been the way in which each one is so different from the other two. The final one, A bit of Private Business, stars Bob Hoskins as a hitman waiting in a public toilet for his next target. Hoskins is so good at this sort of thing, and his comic timing is pretty much impeccable, making much of this monologue very funny indeed. But, in keeping with the other two, things eventually turn a bit darker...the man finds himself meditating on age, loneliness, and the feeling of a world moving on while some people get left behind, and the end of the piece is so surprising that it takes a little while for you to realise how significant it is - the hitman has outlined for us the black-and-white rules and principles of his world, but ultimately we see that, tragically, the things he believes in cannot be trusted any longer.

In summary, these monologues by Hugo Blick have been really quite excellent. Managing to balance comedy and tragedy is a tricky one, but each piece has done it, brilliantly.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Last Word...again

I was wrong, it seems - the monologues are about imminent death, but not necessarily the death of the narrator, as in the first one; in the second one, Six days one June, it is the mother of the storyteller who is on the verge of dying. This one is very unsettling, about a forty-year-old farmer called Huw (played by Rhys Ifans, the master-portrayar of tortured souls) narrating what, at first, appears to be a Lonely-Hearts-type advert, but ultimately becomes a sort of confessional video diary as his story turns darker. Ifans manages to make the character both horrific and pathetic in equal measure; it's a very subtle, mesmerising performance that makes Huw's inevitable breakdown horribly enthralling, as he obsessively washes his face and gives way to wracking sobs.

Brrrr...not comfortable viewing! But thoughtprovoking enough to make it worth a watch.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The Last Word

This post's title isn't a way of saying I'm not going to blog anymore - au contraire, this in fact marks my long-overdue return to blogging after several months of silence! It really refers to a mini-series of thirty-minute dramas that recently aired on BBC One called The Last Word Monologues, thus named because they each feature a character on the verge of dying. I've only watched the first one, but it was so excellent that I thought I'd blog before I watch the other two.

Subtitled Before I call you in, this monologue had Sheila Hancock playing a woman with an untreatable illness recording her last message to her husband before her death. There were lots of snide reviews and comments in the press about Hancock's "stagey" performance, or the "unnatural" script, but I just found it incredibly poignant and beautiful. This is largely due to Hancock's masterfully restrained performance - she's always been known for her ability to do raw emotion effectively, and this is a perfect vehicle for her talents - but credit must go to the writer and director, Hugo Blick, too, as the interchange of anecdotes and reflection is very well-judged. The best bit, for me, is when the woman urges her husband to remarry within a year; this is when Hancock is at her best, gazing straight into the camera with tears in her eyes, blazing with sheer emotion.

Quick, get it on iPlayer before it goes!

Thursday, 8 May 2008

The Mistletoe Bough

A slightly random post, but this is a fantastic Victorian ballad by Thomas Haynes Bailey that my friend Felix has set to music and it is so wonderfully melodramatic and gruesome that I wanted to share it with everyone!
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall.
The Baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
Keeping the Christmas holiday.

The Baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, Lord Lovell's bride.
And she, with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of that goodly company.

"I'm weary of dancing, now," she cried;
"Here, tarry a moment, I'll hide, I'll hide,
And, Lovell, be sure you're the first to trace
The clue to my secret hiding place."
Away she ran, and her friends began
Each tower to search and each nook to scan.
And young Lovell cried, "Oh, where do you hide?
I'm lonesome without you, my own fair bride."

They sought her that night, they sought her next day,
They sought her in vain when a week passed away.
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly, but found her not.
The years passed by and their brief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past.
When Lovell appeared, all the children cried,
"See the old man weeps for his fairy bride."

At length, an old chest that had long laid hid
Was found in the castle; they raised the lid.
A skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair.
How sad the day when in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest,
It closed with a spring and a dreadful doom,
And the bride lay clasped in a living tomb.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Sarah Edwards's Sovereign God

I've already mentioned that I'm reading The Pleasures of God by John Piper at the moment - towards the end of chapter two he deals with the whole question of God's sovereignty over all events, particularly in terms of how we cope with tragedy and loss knowing that even the saddest moments of life are still within God's plan and purposes. He quotes a letter written by Sarah Edwards (wife of the theologian Jonathan Edwards) to her daughter Esther, upon being told that Jonathan had died after contracting smallpox:

What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had [Jonathan] so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be.

Monday, 28 April 2008

It is Clarissa, he said.

So, on Friday morning I finished Mrs Dalloway...

My goodness me. I can't even begin to describe what it's like, it is so utterly unique out of all the books I have read. With every page, the depiction of the characters becomes richer and richer and, as the various streams of consciousness chase each other through the overall narrative, every thought is so poignant; the insignificant, tragic, beautiful stories of incredibly real people became shockingly powerful. Virginia Woolf suffered from mental problems throughout virtually the whole of her life, and I think that contributed to how perceptively she was able to depict and understand people; surely, at the very least, it must have informed her portrayal of Septimus Warren Smith, one of the book's most heartbreaking figures, going quietly and willingly mad from shellshock as his desperate wife tries to help him somehow.

There is so much wit here, too, but almost always in a brutal way - one of the most pathetic characters, Miss Killman, is enjoying an internal tirade against Clarissa Dalloway, whom she despises, when the cringeworthy comment is inserted (she herself when alone in the evening found comfort in a violin; but the sound was excruciating; she had no ear) - we already loathe Miss Killman, but this extra bit of information damns her even further.

All in all, it's a breathtaking read, and one to which I am sure I will return continually through my life. It's a mark of how much I loved it that it has now appeared on my "Favourite Books" list on Facebook (!) - joining such masterpieces as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Gormenghast and The Book Thief.

"Peter! Peter!" cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing. "My party! Remember my party tonight!" she cried, having to raise her voice against the roar of the open air, and, overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking, her voice crying "Remember my party tonight!" sounded frail and thin and very far away as Peter Walsh shut the door.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Many books

Ach it has been a while since last I posted: life has been a bit mental of late so I have been neglecting my blogging. However, I have had many hours of travelling time so have done lots of reading, Hurrah! So here is a bit of an update on my literary journeys.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - I bought this on a bit of a whim in a second-hand bookshop in York, it was a beautiful two volume set which cried out to be purchased! Read the first volume over about a month and it was fantastic - the prose is quite dense so does require a fair bit of mental commitment, but the characters are so well drawn that you get lost in it very quickly. Tolstoy's grasp of human nature is extraordinary - each of his Russian aristocrats have their emotions, desires and fears sketched out masterfully, and the reader gradually realises that the one thing they have in common is a dissatisfaction with their own lives. Only one man, Levin, begins to grasp where he might find fulfilment and this occurs when he takes to the fields with his peasant employees and works alongside them in their labours - this brings home to him the complete emptiness of the lives of his wealthy friends. What Tolstoy conveys brilliantly is the inevitability of each character's destiny, as a result of their actions - Chapter 22 of Part 2 has a very sobering paragraph when two of the main characters (who are having an affair) come to realise where this course of events will take them, signified by the their awkwardness around the woman's son: The sensation he aroused [in them both] might be compared to that of a seafarer who can see by the compass that his vessel is drifting away in the wrong direction and that he is powerless to stop it. Every moment sees him getting farther and farther, with nothing but ruin before him. The child was the compass that showed them what they knew only too well, but refused to recognise. Am anxious to get stuck into the second volume but I will leave it a while.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith - This author is, of course, best known for his books about Precious Ramotswe, the No. 1 Ladies Detective - I do love those books, but prefer his lesser-known series about Isabel Dalhousie, professional philosopher and part-time sleuth, who lives in Edinburgh. This particular book is the second in the series, and it is simply marvellous - Isabel is a brilliant viewpoint character, meditating wittily on every event of life, and the ingenious plots rattle along at an excellent pace, making the books impossible to put down.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - This is my current one, I'm only about thirty pages in but am already enchanted. Woolf's style of writing is incredible - basically one long stream of consciousness containing all of Clarissa Dalloway's thoughts on one particular day - and you emerge from the book feeling like you've inhaled some sort of heady incense. More on this once I've finished it...

The Pleasures of God by John Piper - I've been reading this for a while, in partnership with my friend Sam; again, it requires a lot of concentration but I'm trying hard to really engage with what the author says, and evaluate his points. The basic premise is to expound upon the things in which God takes delight, as shown by the Bible: chapter one deals with God's pleasure in His Son, while chapter two considers His pleasure in His works. It's all very thought-provoking, the margins are slowly filling up with my pencil annotations!

That's it for now! Lots of good stuff, although a little bit tiring to read...I think I need a reliable murder mystery to be the next novel!

Monday, 7 April 2008

Come cangia in un punto il tuo destino

Life is pleasingly unpredictable when you can only afford to buy discounted produce in Sainsbury's. Tonight, for example, I popped in on my way home from work, intending to buy a loaf of bread, some cheese and a couple of mushrooms...instead, I left the store with one peach yoghurt, a carton of chilli vegetable soup and a bag of brioche.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Previous post continued; or, "Love is paying attention."

So, Jonah and Otto...I was quite disarmed, really, as I was expecting some Pinter/Beckett-esque modern theatre piece, with the slightly elusive quality that characterises both those playwrights. It wasn't anything like that, really: yes, the dialogue was a bit heightened (in a poetic way) but ultimately this play was a very straightforward portrayal of a developing relationship between two very different men who begin as strangers and leave as, well, not exactly friends, but something close to that. What was remarkable, however, about this play was the way in which it made you realise that people are not straightforward - we always make assumptions about the people we meet, but there are extraordinary depths to them that need uncovering. Here, we initially saw Otto as a straitlaced and slightly peculiar old man; Jonah as an unstable, smart-mouthed hoodlum. Both of these assumptions were proved to be totally wrong. We watched, captivated, as the two men uncovered their own and each other's insecurities, secrets, longings and fears; as the balance of power shifted between them; as they both were changed by their encounter. The final (and briefest) scene is absolutely beautiful - the two men part, and virtually nothing is said to each other, but we know and they know just how much they have connected and just how long they will stay in each other's mind and heart.

Monday, 17 March 2008

"a single tear falls from his eye"

Tonight, a bunch of us are going to see a play called Jonah and Otto by Robert Holman; I am very excited, mainly because I know next to nothing about it. Holman is not a playwright whose work I know at all - the only things I know about him are taken from an article written by another playwright, Simon Stephens. The article seems to suggest that Holman plays are always incredibly thought-provoking, beautifully written and have an emphasis on strong visual imagery. Sounds good to me. The article ends: "If you are new to his plays, I envy you. You're about to embark, in my opinion, on something rather extraordinary."

More of this later...

Saturday, 15 March 2008


Last night a group of us went to the Royal Northern College of Music to watch a double bill of Ravel operas, L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortileges - both were fantastic (the first one is a hilariously stupid farce with gorgeous music) but it was the second one that really dazzled us all. It's a much-neglected opera, mainly because it's so hard to stage: the story revolves around a little boy who misbehaves, and is punished by the household objects he has mistreated, so the director must somehow come up with ingenious ways of making chairs, crockery and a fire (!) come to life and start singing! This production was fantastic, both visually and musically - particular highlights were:
  • The Princess suddenly rising up out of the boy's storybook - audible gasps from me, and everyone else
  • The wallpaper coming to life, and the beautiful quasi-pastoral music that followed
  • The terrifying sequence with Mr Arithmetic and the numbers
  • The spine-tingling moment when the set opened out to change from the living room into the garden outside - many more audible gasps!
Fantastic stuff.

10 Days to War

Since Monday, there have been a series of 10-minute dramas, one broadcast each day, to mark the anniversary of Britain's commitment to the war in Iraq. If you haven't seen them, I really would urge you to go onto BBC iPlayer and watch the ones that have been on so far - they're all a portrayal of a real event that happened in the ten days leading up to the start of the war (Monday's, for example, entitled A Simple Private Matter, is about Elizabeth Wilmshurt, a senior civil servant who resigned on the basis that the country could not legally justify going to war) and are incredibly well-acted and though-provoking.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

"I thought one was enough; it's not true."

I don't read much non-fiction, aside from Christian books - there's just so much amazing fiction around that I get a bit distracted...but, just occasionally, I read a true story that takes my breath away. One such book (which I've just finished reading) is The Two of Us by the actress Sheila Hancock, about her life with John Thaw (of Inspector Morse fame). Thaw died of cancer in 2002, and the book is mainly about Hancock dealing with the death of her husband - her diary extracts from 2001-3 are interspersed throughoutt the biographical stuff.

It's a beautiful, beautiful book, but two things struck me in particular. Hancock relates some of the letters that helped her most after Thaw's death, including this quote: "Time does not heal, nor any belief, but our own common sense, determination and courage will get us through". As I read it, I realised the truthfulness of it - there's often a lot of feeling among Christians that, when a believer whom you love dies, we should use the knowledge that we'll see them again one day as a kind of antidote to grief. I discovered, when my Grandad died last year, that it doesn't work like that - while I know it is utterly true that he's in heaven, and that I will see him again, that truth in itself does not help me deal with his absence here on earth. It's at times like this that I realise how incredibly wrong people are when they dismiss the Christian faith as an "emotional crutch" to help one through the bad times; I miss Grandad hugely, irrespective of the fact that I know he's in a better place where, one day, we'll be reunited. "Time does not heal, nor any belief", you see. What my faith does provide, however, is not an emotional crutch to take away pain, but rather the knowledge of a loving God who watches over me; it can only be through His strength that "common sense, determination and courage will get [me] through".

The other very touching section comes in the Prologue, where Hancock relates this story:
"Walking in our field. A soft mist of rain. The sun shining behind the drizzle. A rainbow forms across the sky behind me. It reflects in the raindrops on grass and trees. Millions of multicoloured baubles, iridescent, extraordinary.
John, quick, come and look.
Racing back over the wooden bridge, into the conservatory, I toss aside his script, grab his hand and pull him, limping and protesting, to my magic vision.
It's gone.
Oh, great. Miserable wet trees, driving rain and soaking wet trouser legs - thanks a bunch.
But it was beautiful.
Well, you daft thing, why didn't you stay and enjoy it?
I couldn't enjoy it properly without you."
That's why relationships (whether that be friends, lovers or family) are so fundamental to life - having someone to share things with makes everything so much more beautiful.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Times have changed

This is a brilliant piece of trivia for any resident of Manchester: In 1850, Charlotte Brontë came to stay in Plymouth Grove with fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and wrote the following about the charming area of Moss Side - "In this hot weather the windows are kept open; the whispering of leaves and perfume of flowers pervades the rooms."

What might she say now?! "In this hot weather the windows are still locked and barred; the wailing of burgler alarms and stench of dead cats pervades the rooms." different life is now.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The noblest vocation

We had a concert at school tonight and two of my singing students sang.

I think I might have now come to understand why teaching is so fantastic - I felt so incredibly proud of them as I watched them perform, and the idea that I have helped them in some way, however small, to enjoy singing more...well, it's just brilliant.

Just brilliant.

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again..."

I read Daphne du Maurier's acknowledged masterpiece Rebecca last summer, and came to understand why it's regarded as such a fantastic book...I couldn't put it down, reading til the early hours of the morning then getting so scared that I'd have to stop until the daytime! What affected me most was the sense of dread and impending disaster that permeates the whole keep reading out of morbid fascination, really, to reach the inevitably chilling end as quickly as possible.

On Monday this week I began to read another of her books, Jamaica Inn - as I expected, I was immediately hooked all over again. It was written before Rebecca, and you can probably tell that it's not as mature in construction as the later book, but the Gothic terror is still there in abundance, as well as the enigmatic characters and the approaching doom.

"From far away, across many fields and scattered ploughlands, came the merry peal of bells, odd and discordant, in the morning air.
She remember suddenly that it was Christmas Day."

It will not be a happy Christmas for the inhabitants of the Jamaica Inn.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

A small observation

It is often very good indeed to sit down and chat about life with your housemates.

Monday, 18 February 2008

"What's she on about now?"

A bunch of us went to see the play Roots by Arnold Wesker tonight - it was fantastic in the way that a play should be, in that it left us all very thoughtful and unsure about what the final message was. Beattie has her big epiphany about life and family and roots and everything else, and is thrilled to discover that she is finally thinking for herself, but the viewer can't help feeling...what good will it do her? Can she really change life now? Of course not - she has made herself completely alone: her family will never ever understand her now, and the man she loves has deserted her because she didn't become the woman he wanted until it's too late.

So it's a bit bleak but incredibly thought-provoking too.

As all good plays should be.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

"How do you do it?" - Adelaide Midwinter

Life is strange; we all know this, obviously, but it can still wrongfoot you. A person you think you know very well can do something unexpectedly hurtful and not even realise; a fictional story (tonight, Lark Rise to Candleford) can inexplicably upset you even though it's not real.

That's the weirdness of life, I suppose, and the complexities of people.

But, then again, we sang a wonderful hymn in church this morning:

We have an anchor that keeps the soul
Steadfast and sure when the billows roll.
Fastened to the rock which cannot move -
Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour's love.

It's a slightly cliched chorus really, the kind of song that one associates with brass bands and community hymn-singing; nowadays, we prefer poetic beauty or pop-esque cheese in our Christian songs, not this outright simplicity of faith. But it's so true. Sometimes, when life just throws something at me that brings me close to tears, all I have left is this unshakeable truth: that I have an anchor in Jesus Christ. And that's all I need.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

A first attempt

So this is my first venture into the world of blogging...we'll see how it goes. My housemates reliably inform me that it is an excellent thing to be doing, anyway.

Now, my blog's title refers to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I've just finished reading; I can't really recommend it highly enough - it really is simply astounding. A little girl named Liesel Meminger is living in Munich during the Nazi regime, and this is the story (narrated by Death himself) of how she tried to change the world in her own small way. Zusak's writing style is remarkable, it's some of the most poetic prose I've ever read. Read it! Everyone should! At once!

So since that's the last book I read, and I loved it so much, I thought I might steal the Thief herself for my blog title; and it's quite appropriate, as I love books and I prophesy that most of my posts will probably be here you go, some confessions from this particular book thief for you to read whenever you feel like it.

For now, I'll leave a quote from the book:
"I am haunted by humans." - Death