Journal: July-August

29 July

We saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank and I reacted to it in a way not dissimilar to the reaction I described in an earlier blog to Twelfth Night at Auckland’s pop-up Globe. Once again there was too much directorial input, at the expense of Shakespeare – a big disappointment because the Globe (the London one) productions, when they were under the direction of Mark Rylance, had been first rate and had made me feel nearer than ever before to the reality of the work as it must have appeared to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. One thing that I found particularly irritating was that Helena had become Helenus, and since Demetrius falls in Love with Helena this became gay love – very fashionable but not what Shakespeare wrote. And ‘Bottom the weaver’ had become ‘Bottom the Health and Safety Officer’.

After the show I received this message:

We'd love you to tell us what you thought of your visit to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, discuss it with us or other audience members.

I replied:

It was the first Globe production I haven’t enjoyed. The Helena/Helenus alteration to the text was pointless tinkering. The costumes were ugly. The delicacy and subtlety of the play as Shakespeare wrote it – the sylvan magic that’s there in the language – was completely lost. The continuous Indian-style music was too loud and caused the actors to shout above it, to the detriment of clarity. The final rhymes substituted to suit gay rather than straight love – (from memory)

Jill shall have Jill
And Jack shall have Jack
And no one will need
An aphrodisiac

only pointed up how crude and un-Shakespearean the mind who did this was. Let’s have Shakespeare’s vulgarity when he’s vulgar, and Shakespeare’s lyricism when he’s lyrical, but not some amateur’s ham-fisted attempts to improve him or bring him up to date or whatever it was he/she/they thought was being done.

No, truly it was awful – such a disappointment after the great things one has seen done at the Globe.

I received this reply:

Thank you for your comments regarding A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We are sorry to hear you did not enjoy the production. It is always disappointing to hear when an audience member has not enjoyed our shows, as we do our best to create engaging performances.

The Globe’s mission has always been to ground itself in research, exploration, experimentation and to push the boundaries of our artistic endeavours. We value your feedback.

I replied (even though I knew I was only talking to a computer):

Yes all that sounds fine but you should not ‘push the boundaries’ at the expense of the text. The text, if you give it a fair chance and full expression, does so much of the work for you, and too much interference by the director is a minus, not a plus. It was the whole wrench of tone away from what is RIGHT THERE in Shakespeare’s language – the sylvan quality, comic but delicate – that destroyed the play as written.

No please – treat the text, not with reverence, but with respect. Don’t try to do better than Shakespeare – you can’t.

My daughter Charlotte (Grimshaw) had been in London earlier and had seen the same production, with similar disappointment: ‘...weirdly boring, like a cross between a really unsubtle bling bling West End musical and a children's pantomime. Even the usual beauty and joy - the exhilaration - of the dance at the end was ruined by the preceding barrage.’

3 August

On the other hand the last night of The Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret at the Cadogan Theatre near Sloane Square, with Humphries himself, the singer Meow Meow, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, was a musical and theatrical event of the highest quality. The extraordinary Barry, best known in his roles as Dame Edna Everidge, Sandy Stone and Sir Les Patterson, has always been (unknown to the world at large) an intellectual, expert in Pre-Raphaelite art and the literature of late 19th century Decadence. He loves to cruise second-hand bookshops (when he’s in Auckland he always has to be taken to the Hard to Find Bookshop in Onehunga) and it was in Melbourne as very young man that he came upon, and bought, a Gladstone bag containing a collection of German sheet music made by Richard Edmund Beyer. The show was based on that collection, and dedicated to Beyer’s memory. Humphries, who has such ease and natural command of an audience, was narrator, and at times singer and dancer. A lot of the music was by Jews whose work had been condemned by the Nazis as ‘decadent’. Some had escaped to Hollywood to write music for films, some to London, New York, Melbourne, while others had not escaped and had died in the camps. The programme included work by Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and others less famous, including Mischa Spoliansky, who became Barry’s friend in Melbourne. This was music mainly in the style of the movie Cabaret, rich, lively, and especially moving because of the historical context and the sense of a rescue of reputations and music that might otherwise have been forgotten.

I am still in the process of filling that gap in my knowledge of contemporary fiction, J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace was one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, and I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t have the terrible deficiency of his The Childhood of Jesus, the thinness, the lack of detail and substance. Disgrace springs from Coetzee’s knowledge of the academic scene in South Africa, where his principal character, David Lurie, is a teacher; also of the outback where David goes briefly to live with his daughter. And he has a precise sense of the social changes that have occurred since Apartheid ended.

This is a novel that deserves respect; but I can’t say I warm to it. The best one can say is that the prose is workmanlike and the narrative well-managed, moral questions are asked, and it has force as a grim image of modern South Africa.

David Lurie seems a Coetzee-like character, whose attitude to sexual experience is at once joyless and unloving (or at best tepid) – and curiously arrogant. But the account of his affair with the student Melanie, and of the trouble it lands him, is entirely believable, both from the point of view of the feelings of the young woman and the older man, and from that of the authorities who have to deal with it.

The central event of the novel, however, is the assault and robbery of David and the rape of his daughter Lucy, after he has been sacked by the university and gone to visit her in the remote countryside. They are clearly father and daughter and of one temperament: he will not argue his case (such as it might have been) when accused of wrong-doing with his student. He says he found the experience ‘enriching’ but will not explain or make excuses for himself. And now Lucy will not lay a complaint with the police in which the crime of rape is even mentioned. In the novel’s symbolism it seems she has to be burdened with the guilt of the nation. Without any public or formal acknowledgment of the wrong done to her, she accepts not only the rape and its consequences, but the sheer hatred with which it was inflicted.

Nor can Lucy be persuaded to leave the small farm where it becomes clear she will only be protected from further attacks if she accepts the role of third wife or concubine to Petrus, her African neighbour, who will thus acquire her land. She is pregnant as a consequence of the rape, and determined to have the child and ‘to be a good mother’; but her behaviour as Coetzee describes it is so dreary and self-defeating it is hard to imagine any good coming of this resolution.

Finally, there is the writing itself; and though it lacks the fault of thinness, almost abstraction, of The Childhood of Jesus, it is neither elegant nor richly textured, and often clunky and awkward. Explaining himself to Melanie’s father David says, ‘I lack the lyrical... Even when I burn I don’t sing.’ This is surely Coetzee talking through his character about himself, acknowledging limitation. Honest, yes – but also true: his prose doesn’t sing. This is a joyless novel, both in theme and in the writing – depressive, depleted, flat.

But a Booker prize winner. South Africa is one of the world’s ‘trouble spots’ and here, in Coetzee, is a man who speaks for it, and from it, holds unquestionably the right opinions about it, and hangs his head in shame for it. He doesn’t write especially well, but never mind – he must have the prize.

14 August

Yesterday there was a party at Craig and Li Raine’s house in Oxford to celebrate the 50th issue of their literary magazine, Areté. Craig is editor and Li his Deputy, both retired Oxford dons (he, New College; she, St Anne’s). They have four children making an extraordinary family. Craig is poet, playwright and critic, and more recently novelist too, who when I first knew him was poetry editor at Faber (T.S. Eliot’s old post). Li, who writes as Ann Pasternak Slater, has edited the poems of George Herbert, is known as a translator from Russian, and has just produced a critical biography of Evelyn Waugh. Two of their four children, Nina and Moses, have had success as playwrights (Nina successful also as a theatre director); and one, Isaac, is a dress designer who seems to move between New York and Paris. The family home is in North Oxford, and they have an apartment in Venice.

It all sounds frightfully posh-and-literary-fashionable but that is not at all what they are like, individually or collectively. Craig’s background, as he has described it in his collection Rich and elsewhere, is working class, his father a professional boxer and faith-healer, and the household he grew up in ‘bookless’. Exceptional intelligence took him by scholarships to public school and then Oxford.

Li’s background was strongly affected by her Russian mother, sister of the novelist and poet Boris Pasternak, and daughter of the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak whose works (including portraits of Tolstoy and Einstein) line the Raines’ walls. There is about the whole family an unusual directness and immediacy, and a great capacity for affection and loyalty. Their Englishness, which might be the first thing to strike a New Zealander, seems, at a second reading, real but skin-deep. Raine-hood, or Raine-ness, is like a nationality of its own. Walking into a party at their house, especially in summer with doors open to the garden at the back, feels a bit like walking on to the set of a play by Chekhov.

I took the Oxford Tube, the bus that runs day and night, a roughly two-hour journey, from Victoria, and got off at Oxford in ‘the High’ – and I will describe my walk for old Oxfordians of whom I know there are a few among my readers: along Catte Street, past the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian, catching a glimpse of Blackwell’s on the Broad but (thinking of luggage limits and the weight of books) forcing myself on up Parks Road past Trinity and the back wall of St Johns (I once had a key to its gate), then the Pitt Rivers Museum, Parks Road, and up Banbury Road to Park Town where the party was happening. On the return walk when the party was over, I went down Banbury, through North Parade and Church Walk into Woodstock Road, past the house on the corner of Woodstock and Plantation Roads which Kay and I occupied twenty years ago when I was Senior Visiting Fellow at St Johns; then through Plantation Road past the Gardener’s Arms (for a time Dan and Winnie Davin’s regular pub), through Walton Road past the absurd pillars of Oxford University Press (Davin’s employer for most of his life) and to Gloucester Green and the bus terminal.

There was a crowd at the party, both indoors and out in the garden, not many I knew though a number of ‘names’ (in the Strindberg sense – Christopher Hampton, David Lodge for example) I knew by sight. Nina was pregnant, and Vaska, the Raines’ youngest, had already produced their first grandchild. There were two medium-to-large very affable and eager dogs, belonging one to Moses, the other to Vaska. Prosecco (bubbly) was offered and prosciutto (fine-cut ham) followed by a beautiful bean soup and then an indescribably rich and wonderful chocolate dessert/pudding (depending on where you come from), a mousse perhaps, with (I think it was) whipped cream – all of this in the hand and on the hoof, a challenge but worth rising to.

I found myself talking to a woman about the dogs. She lives in Kensington and each morning before work, walks her dog in Kensington Gardens. She described to me rather lyrically the sun rising through the mist on a winter morning, and how her spirit lifts with it.

A young man told me his name was Mark and that he had drawn the feather which decorates every Areté cover. I told him, I had always admired it.

A man half my age came up with outstretched hand, and said something I didn’t catch which I took to be his name. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said.

I didn’t think I’d ever met him, and wondered whether he thought I was Michael Frayn. (In London I am frequently mistaken for Frayn.) ‘You’re looking good,’ I said.

I sat with Li on a sofa (or couch, depending where you come from) and we talked about being ‘no good at parties’, a distinction we both claimed. Where was Kay? I explained she was in London, and why. Li told me I must read her just-published book on Waugh; and before I left she’d given me a copy inscribed with love to Karl and Kay.

She asked me about New Zealand’s remoteness at this time of turmoil in the world: did we feel protected by distance? I could remember a time when distance seemed deprivation rather than protection, but I didn’t say so. I thought of Allen Curnow’s lines, ‘Always to islanders danger / Is what comes over the sea’ but didn’t quote them. I think I said it depends where you imagine the trouble might come from.

Later Craig and I shared another sofa, under the Tolstoy portrait. We compared ailments – his gout (which I remember afflicted Ken Smithyman in his later years), mine polymyalgia rheumatica.

‘Rheumatism’, he said.

‘If you like,’ I replied thinking it was not really so simple – but perhaps he was right and it is.

He said the painfulness of gout came from crystals of uric acid in the bloodstream, and he could feel the crystals in his ears. I told him about the American comic-strip of my childhood, Jiggs and Maggie, in which Jiggs often had one foot huge with bandages because he suffered from gout. People were always tripping on the foot and causing him to howl in pain.

Craig is now 72 and has been retired from teaching seven years. He’s glad not to have to teach but said the idea that one should stop working at 65 or 70 made no sense in the world as it is now.

He’d been taking tango lessons and told me about difficulties. He enjoyed the lessons and learning the steps, but when it came to the practice he ran into trouble. Whether this was because it was too demanding, or too demeaning, wasn’t clear to me. Going out looking for tango-partners on a dance floor might be challenging at 72.

Craig asked about my Paris novel (we’d had a lunch and a dinner together in Paris almost two years back when I was writing it) and I told him I’d abandoned it, but that recently there had been stirrings of renewed interest.

‘You must write it,’ he said. ‘You’ve reached an age when anything you write will be good.’

I took this to mean that it won’t be bad – that it will probably be OK, serviceable, workmanlike, publishable. I said I hoped so but thought I’d reached an age when I might expect to falter.

Kay and I are staying at daughter Margaret’s house in Queen’s Park, and Margaret is Craig’s publisher at Atlantic Books. I told him granddaughter Madeleine (Grimshaw) was across the Park working as P.A. to the actor Jason Isaacs. Craig said Isaacs had played the part of Vittorio Mussolini in the Almeida production of his play, 1953. This was a 20th century updating of Racine’s Andromaque, a ‘counter-factual’ (if that is the word) in which the Axis powers have won World War 2. The fact of this play fascinates me because when I was very young my only attempt at a verse play was also a modernising of the Racine tragedy – a play that impressed me because of its wonderful structure, but which I found defeated me because I couldn’t make its despairing love-motivations credible in a modern (20th century) setting.

So we talked about actors and acting, and I told him about Ralph Fiennes’s brilliantly comic ‘as ‘twere’ scene in the Cohen Brothers’ Hail Caesar; and about his part in the movie A bigger splash where he appears with Tilda Swinton – Swinton as a David Bowie-style rock star, and Fiennes as her former lover, invading her holiday on a Greek Island. There’s a scene in which he performs an astonishing, frenetic Greek dance; and later we see him capering naked around the rock star’s swimming pool, initiating a fight with her current boyfriend, and (not very convincingly) killed by him.

Craig told me about an occasion when Fiennes was acting in Chekhov’s Ivanov (also at the Almeida). Craig thought he waved his arms about too much, and possibly said so to Patrick Marber with whom he was staying at the time. Soon afterwards he was embarrassed to find himself at a large dinner party with Fiennes there among the guests. Would anyone have passed on his criticism? Craig positioned himself as far away as possible from the actor and there was no contact until the party was breaking up and suddenly, there was Fiennes looming over Craig’s chair. ‘I think,’ he murmured, ‘that “History” [Craig long poem] is the most beautiful poem I have ever read.’

Craig acted it out: ‘the most b-yew-tiful poo-m...’

‘Since then of course,’ Craig said, ‘I’ve thought he was a great actor.’

I told him about my struggle with Coetzee. He said he was outraged that the recently announced Booker long list included The Schooldays of Jesus (sequel to The Childhood of...) and not his friend Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, which I don’t think has yet been released but will be soon and has been entered for the Booker.

Craig had reviewed Disgrace and was not surprised that I didn’t rate Coetzee very highly as a writer – neither does he, and neither (he said) does Martin Amis. I have now checked what he wrote about the novel, found in his collection More Dynamite. Craig describes Disgrace as ‘quite a good novel’. He analyses its moral dilemmas, finds them worthy and interesting, but thinks the novel indifferently written: ‘Coetzee writes the way Fred Astaire sings – carefully competent in a narrow vocal range. (And Coetzee can’t dance.)’

Craig concludes his review, ‘Morally we are stretched if aesthetically we are a little starved.’

All this time the Olympics have been going on and I’ve been struggling to discover what is happening because the reporting here focusses almost exclusively on ‘Team G.B.’ If a Brit comes third you will be told that fact, but not necessarily who came first and second – unless one or both can be dismissed as ‘drug cheats’. I thought this sort of one-eyed sporting nationalism was our Kiwi failing; but the Brits are now worse. It’s something relatively new here, a consequence of the fact that they are now winning a lot of medals, which in turn is a consequence of their spending more money than ever before to promote sport and free their top performers to work exclusively at their event. I would quite like to know how the NZ team has been faring, but have only discovered by going to the NZ Herald website that Valerie Adams was beaten by an American into second in the shot putt, and that Mahe Drysdale won the single sculls. Now and then on TV I’ve caught sight of a New Zealander among the cyclists. But my interest in the Olympic Games, which was intense when I was young and somewhat (modestly) athletic, has diminished in proportion as the number of events has multiplied. In the Guardian Simon Jenkins accuses Britain of ‘doing what we used to ridicule the Soviets for doing – using sport as a proxy for economic success’. The BBC’s coverage he describes as a ‘total collapse of news values, the corporation peddling tabloid chauvinist schlock.’

Maybe the current British obsession with the Olympics (in which they are ‘Team GB’, not England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is connected to the Brexit. Politically the nation is now quiet, satisfied for the moment with Theresa May as P.M., and waiting to see what is negotiated – whether a deal can be done to exempt them from taking their fair share of migrants while retaining access to the vast European market: i.e. whether they can have their cake and eat it.

But the argument about who should lead the Labour Party continues, and will be determined soon between Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger, Owen Smith.

18 August

Today I met a French PhD student, Christine Gartner, whose thesis subject is Janet Frame. She had just spent some weeks in New Zealand in pursuit of Frame locations, and wanted to talk to me about the biography and my connections with it. She was very pleasant, refreshingly brisk and practical, respectful of her subject without being too reverent. She had taken the Eurostar from Paris to St Pancras and I took her to lunch at Freddie’s Bar in what is now Goodenough College (formerly London House) in Mecklenburgh Square.

Talking about Frame reminded me of something that is also a sort of P.S. about J.M. Coetzee. In October 2003 it was rumoured that in Stockholm Janet Frame was being seriously considered for the Nobel Prize for literature. She was consequently pestered by the Press who did not know she was just at that time being diagnosed with a fatal kind of leukemia. When the Prize was announced it had gone to Coetzee. She e-mailed me saying, ‘Vampire fashion I have to have blood transfusions until “the end”, and the day I was receiving phone calls about the ignoble prize, I was in a hospice learning of my curtailed future.’ She included a photograph of herself, hooked up for the transfusion and reading a recent issue of the Listener (holding it so it could be seen) in which I had reviewed Vince O’Sullivan’s biography of John Mulgan.

Janet Frame.

20 August

I leave tomorrow and fly back direct (no stopover) via Seoul, so I will be back in New Zealand in time for the Christchurch Festival and NZ Poetry Day. I wonder, as I do each time I leave London, whether this will be my last visit. There have been so many since I was first here as a student close-on 60 years ago. There should be quite a bit of late summer left, but the leaves are beginning to fall in Queen’s Park and the squirrels are to be seen eager with acorns.

– C.K. Stead

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