Archive for September, 2009

The Tender Land (Aaron Copland) Cochrane Theatre 19 September 2009

September 23, 2009


A picture of Aaron Copland

A picture of Aaron Copland

S0.  Didn’t know what to expect here.  The stage had a cardboard moon to the left and a minor platform with a rocking chair on the right.  Some musicians (piano/conductor, two viloins, cello base and flute as per the programme) played in darkness at the back of the stage.

The story is simple enough.  We are on a farm in the middle of nowhere (or the Midwest as they say in America).  It is the day before Laurie, the daughter of the house, graduates from high school (a good thing).  On the other hand, a couple of bums have been interfering with local womenfolk (a bad thing).  A couple of bums–Martin and Top–do indeed arrive, and Grandpa takes them on to help with the harvest, although he doesn’t like strangers.

There is a party to celebrate Laurie’s upcoming graduation, accompanied by folk dancing folk songs etc.  Martin and Laurie are in love and exchange a kiss.  Grandpa rounds on the newcomers, then the  postman returns with the news that the bad bums have been arrested so these can’t be they.  Martin and Laurie plan to leave together at daybreak, then Martin decides that will cause trouble so he and Top run away beforehand.  Laurie decides she can no longer go through with the graduation and life on the farm and leaves on her own at daybreak.

And the music is very lovely in the this-is-so-simple-it-can’t-work-but-it-does Britten manner–like two Church Parables welded together.   And Ma Moss who is there at the beginning and there at the end is like the Abbot from Curlew River [? what about Rape of Lucretia].  This part was well sung by Natasha Dobie, while Amy Castledine was fetching (if not always especially audible)  as Laurie Moss.  The policy of casting actors from musicals rather than opera singers was not without its problems, especially in the form of David O’Mahony as Martin.

But all in all a very worthwhile evening–just a pity the audience wasn’t more numerous!

The Believers (Zoe Heller)

September 18, 2009


The novel starts in 1962 in London when Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff, a radical young American lawyer and follows him back to New York after having taken him on a visit to her parents and also slept with him.

Forty years later we rejoin the story: Joel, who has become a leading and notorious defender of the unpopular accused, has a stroke while preparing to defend a terrorist suspect and spends most of the book in a coma before dying towards the end.  And the other family members have their own crises to contend with.  Of their two daughters, Karla (?Marx) is nearly strangled to death by one of her clients in her job as a hospital social worker while Rosa (Luxemburg?  Parkes??) having returned disillusioned from four years in Cuba is working at an after-school group and becoming interested in Orthodox Judaism.   Meanwhile, adopted son Lenny continues in his career as a drug-taking waster.

At the beginning (the second beginning) Joel wants a bialy [~
bagel] for his breakfast, but Audrey sends him off to court on a boiled egg.  Perhaps this represents a failure of love–Audrey is represented as a very indifferent cook, while Karla does manage to forget about her diet and allow herself to be fed by Khaled, her new lover.   But Audrey is never shown as adequately feeding Lenny, who she does love, though she does worry about what he eats.

The bialy is the first representative of a large amount of Jewish terminology (including transcribed Hebrew and Yiddish prayers)  that the reader encounters.  Sometimes this is explained or glossed and  sometimes not.  In part, this may reflect the defamiliarisation that Rosa experiences upon coming into contact with Jewish practice.  Or maybe it just defamiliarises the reader.

I haven’t worked out whether the rather idiosyncratic Jewish traditions (ritual bathing, avoidance of sex while the wife is ‘impure’ because of menstruation) are meant to offer a positive contrast t0 the vacuousness of Audrey’s and Joel’s leftism (at one stage, Rosa muses that her mother’s views are like her former classmate’s support for obscure indie bands–they would be mortified if they ever became popular), or whether they just look good by contrast.  Certainly things that Rosa comes across like the inappropriately sexualised dance routine choreographed by the schoolgirl Chianti (and the casual brutality with which Chianti’s mother hits her) and the grandfather pimping his granddaughter reported by Chris, who talks a lot of nonsense and then fucks with the abstracted efficiency of a dog do seem to point up the need for the moral law.

The other main piece of plot concerns Berenice Mason, who declares herself to be the mother of a child by Joel, and evokes unbridled fury from Audrey.  With her photograph ‘Black cunt #3’ on display in her corruptly-obtained apartment and her vacuous New Agey books she seems to be easily the most ridiculous character in the book.

KARLA:  Well, you don’t love someone because of the books they read–

ROSA:  Don’t you?

In fact, the most negative characters in the book seem to be the black ones–Berenice, Chianti, and Nicholas the cripple who almost kills Audrey.  But there is Lenny, who appears to be satisfyingly devoid of any redeeming features [and he’s not Jewish of course…]

So who is the main character?  The book starts with Audrey leaving to join Joel after a fellow guest at the party has warned her ‘Jew’ and ends with Karla leaving to join Khaled after a workmate has warned her ‘Arab’.  Audrey as an attractive young woman arrived in a strange country adopted a brash manner to hide her crippling shyness while Karla’s reproductive capacities are annulled by cysts and endometriosis, so their insides are both messed up.  [A bit weak, this parallel…]

Rosa is the other candidate–she seems to me to be engaged in a gauche and priggish but nonetheless genuine search for righteousness, which is an entirely natural thing for a young Jewish woman to do.  And her perceptions are sharply-focused in a language very close to that of the omniscient narrator, so it feels as though she’s at the centre of things.  And she does learn something in the course of the book and act on it:  Accept the truth, whoever it comes from.  But there’s no sign that she ever believes in Hashem, which makes the playing at being a Jew a bit deadly…

At the end, in her funeral oration for Joel, Audrey singles out for special mention  ‘my dear friend Berenice Mason…with her son–Joel’s son, our son–Jamil’ in what may be an unprecedented and unmotivated change of heart, but is more likely a magnificent display of nihilistic cynicism.

Studying Indo-European, Historical Linguistics, Sanskrit, Russian Literature (not in Leiden)

September 16, 2009
Picture of a tram in Deurne

Picture of a tram in Deurne

Apart from the possibilities in Leiden, Birkbeck does a course in Historical Linguistics (called History and Language just to confuse you), which as I recall includes a session on Indo-European.

There are plenty of Sanskrit courses at SOAS, so that should be easy enough.  And the University of Texas has some online lessons in Early Indo-European Languages.

And there is a Russian Summer School in Deurne (near Antwerp, Belgium), apparently organised by the Cultural Section of the Russian Embassy in Belgium.  Of course this year’s edition went by quite recently…

I’ve not been myself–when I was in Leiden a couple of years ago the teacher gave me a leaflet about it in Flemish, which didn’t do me much good.

I might give it a go next time round–Littérature russe (classique et contemporaine) sounds good, though Conférences culturelles et sociopolitiques, reprenant les grands thèmes qui sont d’actualité en Russie suggests a splitting headache, especially if it’s organised by an Embassy…

Studying Indo-European, Historical Linguistics, Sanskrit, Russian Literature (etc)

September 12, 2009

Now we’re reaching the heights of unreality of course–like a city with poems in foreign languages painted on the walls of the houses.


So for the past four years there has been a Summer School in Languages and Linguistics in Leiden. While the focus of this varies from year to year, there are usually courses on Indo-European, Sanskrit and Russian Literature (among many others). I went in 2007 and it was very interesting–I did courses in Indo-European Phonology and Morphology, Indo-European Origins, and Russian Literature.

It was basically aimed at first-year graduate students (the director, Sasha Lubotsky, told me it was meant to compensate for the decline in Indo-European studies in Germany and the effects of the Bologna protocol), but there were some…older…people doing Russian and Sanskrit mainly as I recall.  And there’s a 1-year MA in Comparative Indo-European Linguistics if you’re really keen, while you can find a site dedicated to Leiden poems-on-walls here.

OK, so let’s have some more detail in an attempt to be helpful.

There were four timeslots of 90 minutes each, each one corresponding to one course, with time in between for coffee/tea and lunch, so the day lasted from 0930 to 1730, and there were quite a few lectures/activities in the evenings.  I did three courses, as I’ve  said above and as I thought was advised, but lots of people did four.

Sunday 29 July

I arrive at Leiden station and go to the Leiden University Visitors’ Centre.  Alwin isn’t there, but when I go back 15 minutes later he is.   I get a key to Hugo de Grootstraat 32 and set off to walk.  When I get there, I can’t see any card-operated lock.  After a long period of desperation, I realise that the main door isn’t locked, so I manage to get to what is a very large underground studio by waving the card.  I start to fill out the inventory, somewhat confused by the dual functionality of many things (the locker for instance doubles as the headboard of the bed–that’s how you make space in a country like Holland).

In the evening, I set off for the reception; I manage to find ‘de Groote Beer’ but not the reception!  I find a useful supermarket by the station as well.

Monday 30 July

After we have managed to get into the building and Alwin has scolded defaulters from the reception, we have Jim Mallory on Indo-European Origins (once someone has got the computer to work) and jolly interesting it is too.  There must be 50 or so people for this one!

In the afternoon, it’s PIE Morphology and Phonology with 25 or people and then ‘Stalin Terror in Russian Poetry’, where everyone else seems to be Dutch speakers, and they do break into Dutch from time to time.

Tuesday  31 July

Jim Mallory announces he is breaking us up into teams, and a not very numerous ‘Team England’ is formed.  At coffee, we worry about our PIE homework from yesterday.  Prof Lubotsky goes through the exercises in the afternoon and when in the discussion of Akhmatova I say there is a star in Revelations Mrs Lubotsky says that I should have more to say for myself.  The non-Dutch presence doubles with the arrival of Jeremy.

Wednesday 01 August

Jim Mallory says the presenters from the different teams have more-or-less covered the necessary points between them.  Yesterday’s PIE homework turns out to be as easy as it seemed.  We finish going through Реквием and read the end of it in unison.  We start Поэма без героя and I disagree with Mrs Lubotsky about Greek tragedy.  Discussion ensues.

At dinner, people complain about the repeated testing in US graduate schools.  Beth says it sounds like the kind of life for her.

Thursday 02 August

I point out that Jim Mallory can’t really do a chi-square test with expected frequencies < 5 and he says he has 672 cells and no significance anywhere.

Interesting PIE in the afternoon–we get on to de Saussure and his coefficients sonantiques.  Mrs Lubotsky tells me they are going to consult the Professor of Greek on Sophocles’s views on the individual and society.

Friday 03 August

Jim Mallory tells us about time depth.  Prof Lubotsky surprises me with a question about glottalisation in London.  Mrs Lubotsky plays us recordings of Aleksandr Galich

A very interesting lecture on ‘BMAC and its language from Prof Lubotsky in the evening.

Saturday 04 August

I wander round Leiden and buy a couple of books.

Sunday  05 August

Cleaning, tidying, homework…

Monday 06 August

Prof Mallory displays some worryingly unstructured data.  I turn out to have got 4/20 in my PIE homework.  Russian poetry is quite fun, apart from Jeremy having disappeared.

Lecture on ‘Coping with words, ideas and things’ in the evening–is he talking about natural kinds or something else?

Tuesday 07 August

Prof Mallory gets us to discuss how to change the language of Ireland from English to Japanese, adding that he knows how poor the response can be on the basis of his students in Belfast.

More unsuccess with PIE Homework.  And then pretty interesting Mandel’shtam (Jeremy has reappeared).

Lecture on ‘Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts’ in the evening.

Wednesday 08 August

The Italian girls put forward the Roman Empire as a model for IE language dispersal ‘after a night of sleepless scientific work’ and in the alternative suggest that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were just better looking.  The American lad sitting next to me puts forward the warrior band/priestly caste model, after which Nina for the Slavs agrees and also wants to say something about the position of women.

I have a headache during Professor Lubotsky’s lecture, while in Russian I offer a talk <<По просьбе учащихся–о греческой трагедии>>.  Jeremy and I go to look at a sofa he is buying.

Thursday 09 August

Sessions pass.  Frans tells me we are going to buy Mrs Lubotsky a book of Flemish poetry and I cough up 4 euros.  Jim Mallory gives a jolly good talk in the evening.

Friday 10 August

Jim Mallory springs a surprise at the end of his lecture, claiming a recent date for European languages apart from Greek and wanting to know what the linguists think–they don’t, or not openly.

I can’t find any overview of Greek drama in the library, so write down my own ideas in Russian.

Prof Lubotsky entertains us with a reconstruction of shin-bone in PIE and its dissimilation from shank.  He gives us each a copy of his inaugural lecture (in Dutch).

I give my talk on Greek tragedy in Russian, saying it was not Greek and not tragic, and people appear interested.  We pretend to sing along to Gorodnitsky and Galich.  Lena gives us a DVD of Love’s Prayer in Dutch.  We give her a book of Willem de Korning and a photo album.

At dinner we talk about favourite Greek authors and which Russian leader spoke the worst Russian.

Saturday 11 August

The normal anticlimax of going home is a bit painful!

Il signor Bruschino/La scala di seta BYO Peacock Theatre 8 September 2009

September 9, 2009


SanMois%E8The two parts of BYO’s Rossini double-bill shared a basic setting of a bare (if stepped) stage, although there was essentially a different cast for each opera.

Il Signor Bruschino had enough pieces of furniture and realistic costumes to enable you to tell who was who and what was going on. In fact, it went along very effectively, and I particularly enjoyed the well-matched and charming pairing of Elena Sancho (soprano, Sofia) and Thomas Herford (tenor, Florville).

We were sitting in the front row, which had many advantages (hearing the orchestral detail, hearing and seeing the singers), and also meant we couldn’t see the surtitles very easily. But once I’d decided to understand the Italian instead I found this meant I was drawn in much more than usual.

Some lovely music from the young Rossini and good playing from the Southbank Sinfonia meant we headed for the ice-cream-and-toilet break in very good heart.

I once (eight years ago, in fact) saw La scala di seta at GSMD with a very elaborate wood-panelled set which seemed to absorb all of the cast’s energies in dealing with it.

This time we had the bare (if stepped) stage with the occasional picture frame or lampshade or clothes rack for people to hide behind/under/in. And it didn’t work for me, in large part because Natalya Romaniw didn’t characterise the heroine Giulia sufficiently–by which I mean that if you want to be a (female) opera singer you really need to learn how to wear a dress and walk across the stage in character. The unbalancing of the structure in Giulia’s favour was probably heightened by the role of Germano–who is probably the other main character here–being taken by the understudy (Peter Braithwaite).  But I liked Carlos Nogueira as Dorvil, though the pairing with Giulia was a bit spoiled by her singing rather more loudly than him (rather too loudly compared with the rest of the cast I thought).

Hanna Hipp as Lucilla`also seemed to have caught the “It’s a comedy so let’s start off being mad” disease–you need to start with at least the appearance of order which then breaks down. That’s what comedy is. And there was at least one occasion when the less-than-minimalist setting meant I had no idea whether the action was taking place indoors or outside.

So including all of the doors, windows, wardrobes and so on mentioned in the text and stage directions doesn’t seem to work and ignoring them completely certainly doesn’t. There must be a third way…


Studying New Testament Greek

September 6, 2009


To a large extent, the answer here is ‘See Ancient Greek’, or as Stephanie Winder from Edinburgh puts it:  For absolute beginners, we recommend the Beginning Ancient Greek course because at that level the grammar/ morphology is virtually identical.

Notwithstanding this, there tends to be a week of non-beginners’ NT Greek at the Edinburgh Summer School. There is also a weekend at Madingley Hall and an Intermediate-level course at City Lit.

Provision at Birkbeck seems to have entirely disappeared over the past couple of years.

I’ve plagiarised some literature references for NT Greek from Paul Parvis at Edinburgh here.  And I’ve posted my experiences of doing NT Greek in Edinburgh here (see under ‘Edinburgh’, strangely enough) and at Magingley Hall here.

The rest is silence or…’See Ancient Greek’.

Studying Russian in Russia Part 2: Moscow

September 5, 2009


Russian Language Centre 14 December 2003 to 4 January 2004

This appeared to be somebody’s semi-private offshoot of Moscow University–the main Russian teaching establishment there would be the Centre for International Education. Anyway, after a couple of exchanges of emails they agreed to three weeks with some literature over Christmas/New Year.

Probably due to a shortage of alternatives over this period, I ended up staying in the flat of and being landladied by my teacher, Elena Petrovna.

This arrangement wasn’t as frightening as it might have been, but I did spend a lot of time hiding in my room–the flat was near Polyanka metro and also a large Molodaya Gvardiya bookshop, which was convenient.

Anyway, to start with I read some Russian poems aloud and Elena Petrovna corrected my reading. And after that I read various poems, extracts and short works chosen by EP and we discussed them or I wrote an essay on them or both.

On one occasion I wrote a composition on Пушкин и Цветаева, as being easier than the alternative of ‘Poetic form in England and Russia at the beginning of the 2oth Century’.

If there were themes to EP’s choices, they seemed to be Moscow v St Petersburg and Russian emigre literature. I suggested that Nabokov had adjusted better to exile than Bunin and she disagreed.

She felt there were no Russian poets after Pasternak and proved to be about as competent as me at domestic management–at one stage, I had to replace a missing pane in the secondary glazing with a Daily Telegraph and a shopping bag.

And I met with an attempted scam on the street–the one where dude A drops a packet of money in front of you, dude B picks it up and offers to split it with you–I’m not that stupid…I heard a programme on Эхо Москвы where someone very sensibly said that the Communist Party should grow up, forget all the National-Orthodox shit, and start with some basic Marxist principles: atheism and internationalism.

EP and I had some discussion about whether the Christian imagery and indeed content in Pasternak is just decoration or are we meant to take it seriously, but I’ve forgotten the answer. And we had an interesting discussion about whether reading foreign poetry is the mark of a Pincher-Martin-like rapist and murderer, substituting fragments of his solipsistic reveries for the living world.

At the end, we both agreed that Sorokin’s 30-ая любовь Марины was truly dreadful.

What I have learned from these experiences

You need to be very careful on the street–if you feel at all uneasy, get off it into a cafe or the like where you’ll be under the protection of the management.

There always seems to be some dispute with the school or landlady/host family about money–keep calm and have your documentation about you.  The same advice holds true for contacts with immigration authorities and other…organs.

It’s a very good idea to write down explicitly beforehand what you’re trying to achieve–you can even give this to the teacher if you’re feeling truly daring…

Shortwave Cinema, Bermondsey Square

September 2, 2009

On Sunday I went to see Frozen River at the Shortwave Cinema


which is in Bermondsey Square, a…er…triangle


in the fashionable…er…Bermondsey area of South London.

I liked the development–there was a Sainsbury’s Local and the buildings looked modern, not pseudo-antique


And I liked the cinema as well–you have to buy tickets (really tokens) at the bar, and they come and get you when the film’s ready. It’s all pretty laid-back. The ‘cinema’ or screening room itself is quite like the old Odeon Swiss Centre…

My New Furniture

September 1, 2009

So I got my furniture today, 5 or 7 weeks late depending on how you look at it.  Doleful history may be found here.

Mmm yes...horrible

Mmm yes...horrible

...quite disgusting...

...quite disgusting...

...reupholstering won't help the cocoa-effect woodstain.

...reupholstering won't help the cocoa-effect woodstain.

Well, I can only blame myself for going by what things look like on the Internet. It would probably have been survivable if I’d gone for some neutral-coloured fabric and light wood.

As it is, the options are:

i) hide it upstairs

ii) emigrate to Bromley (where egregious offences against taste are a way of life);

iii) get some material and improvise covers.