Archive for January, 2011

Instruments for causing pain (and death)

January 30, 2011

Here are some of the weapons from Mikhail Elizarov’s Bibliotekar’ whose names I didn’t recognise.


Looks like a miner’s pick to me:


There seem to be two variants:

Version 1

Version 2


It’s a bit like a tomahawk surely:


Two variants again:

Version 1: nasty but comprehensible

Version 2: just very nasty!

To be continued, regrettably enough…

Саперные лопатки

Look like trenching tools to me, just as you’d expect:






One of those will do!





The Overcoat Brockley Jack 29 November

January 29, 2011


Old and new ‘overcoats’ (from NTV clip)

Before the show began, my companion inspected the programme and announced that a woefully inadequate proportion of the cast had appeared in The Bill and she was not at all pleased with this negligence.  And once it began, I was mystified by the comedy Russian accents.  Russians think that they speak quite normally and fail to realise that they are foreigners.  Perhaps the idea was not to expose the real Russian (Ksenia Zaitseva) who played Alla Ivanovna–but a sensible, sympathetic, flesh-and-blood woman as was portrayed here is so alien a creature in the Gogol universe that a foreign accent would be more than appropriate.

I found that the narrative of Bashmachkin’s story–how his fellow-clerks bullied him for not having a decent overcoat and he denied himself still further–was just undramatic.  The denouement differed from Gogol’s–instead of terrorising the citizens of St Petersburg by snatching the ‘overcoats’ off their backs, here Bashmachkin reappeared looking rather prosperous and recounted the story of Dives and Lazarus to his terrified superior.

A prosperous (albeit dead) Bashmachkin (from NTV again)

That provided an effective dramatic moment, but the beauty, truth and grown-upness of the Gospel text (I speak as a complete atheist) did show the rest of the material up.

There’s an interesting Russian TV clip about the production here.  The reporter mentions the actors being made to speak with dreadful Russian accents and also describes Brockley as ‘one of the poorest parts of London…In just such places Bashmachkins are born’.

‘Into the Whirlwind’ Noel Coward Theatre 22 January

January 22, 2011


An effective crowd scene (from

Before the show, I was explaining to my companions what it was about–they may have been expecting some lesser-known Chekhov–and I realised  I wasn’t so sure of the point myself.  This is of course an adaptation of the first part of Evgenia Ginzburg’s memoir Into the Whirlwind, about how she was repressed during the Stalin purges of the 1930s, and I tended to think that if you knew the book (if you, for instance, read it in two languages when you were young and impressionable) then you didn’t really need a play.  Or if you didn’t know the book I wasn’t so sure how interesting you would find the subject matter.

And afterwards I think the same, but maybe more so.  The first part covered Ginzburg’s interrogation, and I’ve been a lot more frightened as  a  visitor in a`Russian police station than I was here.  On the one hand, what you see on stage is always somehow sanitised  and not frightening and disorderly enough and on the other I think you really need to read and create your own universe of terror.

But in the Royal Circle we generated a satisfying level of azhiotazh and were honoured by the presence of Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova front and centre.

Foyer at half-time

The second half had an effective crowd scene illustrated above as the women were gathered in a common cell awaiting departure to their various destinations of incarceration; the sudden changes of mood, one person doing one thing and another doing another, conflicts of various social backgrounds and views of life, and Milda hanging herself unnoticed in a corner were all very well handled.

Since the audience was mostly composed of Russians–or so it seemed to me–we had the compulsory standing ovation at the end.  I thought the surtitles (maybe sidetitles in this instance) were among the most effective I’d seen…

One Day (David Nicholls)

January 19, 2011


At one stage thought I was never going to get through this book club book.  Once Emma and Dexter had failed to get it together on their graduation day and set or drifted off on their separate paths I found the snapshots of July 15 in different years deeply dispiriting, in large part because the author insisted on telling you far too much rather than leaving you to intuit it for yourself.  So it was like one of those circular letters you get at Christmas.  And there was little affect, even sexual feeling between the parted maybe lovers was absent.

Occasionally there were some glimmers of hope.  On page 150 or so it occurred to me that as a character Ian Whitehead, Emma’s better-than-nothing boyfriend, resembled his creator as a novelist:  inept and desperate to please.  Eventually I embarked on a bus journey up to Town and back–it was dark and so the view from the window could not distract me–and managed to dispose of 150 pages that way.  I was even rewarded with a couple of decent jokes (from the acknowledgements at the end, it looks like Emma’s jokes were painstakingly harvested from the author’s friends over a period of years).

Things got a bit better after the dramatic plot twist, which I thought was a bit telegraphed, but not dreadfully so.  And at the end, when we returned to the beginning with Emma and Dexter wondering ‘What do I do now?’ after their night together, that was quite touching and it gave the narrative some structural tension in place of the dreary plodding on from year to year.

To enumerate the things that irritated me in this book would take a very long time.  The main characters you can’t believe in is bad enough, but there really are no other characters, except that perhaps Dexter’s mum and dad maybe ‘stand for’ him and Emma respectively.  At one stage I thought that D and E might represent the conflict between pagan and Christian values, but I don’t think so…In recruitment, you often have a list of competencies marked D for Desirable and E for Essential.  Desirable Dexter and Essential Emma–that’s not bad, not bad at all…

Why do you never get any idea of what they look like?  The colour of their eyes, for instance, since they must spend a great deal of time being gazed into.  Part of the plot engine is that lots of women want to get it on with Dexter because he is so Desirable, and this kind of thing works a lot better in a film where you can see the evidence.  And I think it should work better as a film–the first thing in making a book into a film is to throw away at least  95% of the words, which is exactly what is required here.

I was irritated to see that for the characters happiness was living in North London, while Brixton was the locale for Dexter’s night in hell and Stockwell was the place you would most certainly get your stereo nicked.  Then Russian literature was an extreme of worthy dullness such that it might be too much even for Emma.

He writes that the neck
of a broken bottle lying on the bank glittered in the moonlight, and
that the shadows lay black under the mill-wheel. There you have a
moonlight night before your eyes, but I speak of the shimmering light,
the twinkling stars, the distant sounds of a piano melting into the
still and scented air, and the result is abominable.

Well I suppose that when you know you’ve been found out a certain bitterness is natural, if childish…

Greek Texts at Madingley Hall 2011

January 7, 2011

Madingley Hall again (from

Here are the texts advertised for this year:
18 – 20 February
A. & B. Homer, Odyssey Book 11 ed. Stanford (BCP) £20
27 – 29 May
A. Theocritus, Selected Idylls ed. Hunter (CUP) £18.99 [all poems to be read]
B. Theophrastus, Characters ed. Ussher (BCP) £16.99 [selection pgs 33 to 209 inclusive]
9 – 11 September
A. Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis Loeb vol. VI £15.95 or Oxford Classical Text Vol. III £25 [lines 1 – 800]
B. Plato, Protagoras ed. Denyer (CUP) £17.99 [309a1 – 328d1]
11 -13 November
A. Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis [lines 801 – end]
B. Plato, Protagoras [334c7 – 348c4, 353c1 – 354e2, 358a1 – 358d5, 360e6 – 362a3]

I personally have signed up for Odyssey XI and I imagine I’ll give Protagoras a go.  There is more information (including courses at other levels) to be found here.

Opera at the London Colleges in 2011

January 5, 2011

Getting a brochure from GSMD with some interesting offerings has led me to wonder what will be on at at the other colleges in the Spring.

To begin at the beginning,


Dialogues des Carmelites (Poulenc), various dates 3 – 9 March; details here.

Rita (Donizetti) and Iolanta (Tchaikovsky), various dates 9 – 15 June; details here.

Royal Academy of Music

Kommilitonen! (new work by Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies), 21, 23, 25 March.  Their website hasn’t been talking to me for some time now, but you can find a Guardian article here.

Royal College of Music

Rodelinda (Handel),  14-17 March; details here.

So far, I think I’m still most hopeful about GSMD–the RAM offering looks dauntingly right-on…

And Now:  University College Opera

Die Drei Pintos (Weber/Mahler) 21st, 23rd, 25th, 26th March; listing here.  It doesn’t tell you much at present, but that will surely change…

Red Plenty (Francis Spufford)

January 1, 2011


This book—a non-fiction novel—is about the failure of the Soviet economy to deliver the expectation of plenty. The genre is unusual enough, and this is a non-fiction novel not about a particular event or personage but about an idea, which is even more unusual.

The book opens with Leonid Kantorovich coming up with the idea of Linear Programming on a crowded tram in Leningrad in 1938 and ends with him optimising the production of steel pipe to carry oil from the Siberian fields, since in the interim Soviet industry has failed  and the country has been thrown back on exploiting its natural resources.

The story is illustrated by episodes in the life of various characters: Galina, an ambitious Komsomol girl, is thrown off course after visiting the American exhibition in Moscow and ends up marrying a rather coarser careerist than she had hoped for. Volodya, her former intended, is sent to Novocherkassk to redeem himself and finds that things take a decided turn for the worse. Nikita Khrushchev is drawn into something he doesn’t understand and finds it turns against him.  An economically rational price increase and finds it ends in bloodshed when accompanied by a cut in pay. A reform plan put to Aleksei Kosygin results in all the changes being adopted as long as everything stays the same.

This is all very interesting from a number of aspects. It contains a lot of interesting and useful material on linear programming and analysis/management science. As well as linear programming, we learn about the importance of working ‘from the problem’ (asking questions and finding out what is really going on ) rather than ‘from the photograph’ (believing what they tell you). The 3% increase in efficiency is perhaps allowed and achievable as a one-off, but is never going to accumulate into qualitative change. Things can change—they must undergo radical reform–as long as they remain the same and nobody is alarmed too much. And the ‘method of balances’ for planning the economy does sound rather like HM Treasury at Budget time, though as ‘a very kind man’ Mokhov would be sadly out of place there.

As a sketch of Soviet economic history I also found the book quite impressive. There are some reservations. The reason that Stalin’s shock industrialisation worked—that the whole thing came off—was that people were desperate to leave the countryside, as the Chinese are now. I think that the thing about products being valued by weight comes from one anecdote about a furniture factory, and I don’t really believe it in connection with heavy (heavy!) machinery.  I think the reason the system finally became unworkable was that in the absence of coercive measures local managers had effectively privatised their enterprises, or at least the gains from them, so you had a centrally-planned system where the centre couldn’t enforce its will.  The ‘supply agent’ Chekuskin also seems to belong to the chaos of the 1930s rather than to the 1960s and anyway bears too close a resemblance to Gogol’s Chichikov for comfort.

As well as the narrative, the book comes with a comprehensive commentary explaining and justifying the narrative and an exhaustive list of references. The narrative stands as a foetus nourished by the parent body of fact through a placenta of commentary. In the narrative itself, you wonder about the characters—are they the progenitors of the thing that, like Lebedev’s lung cancer, nobody is able to cure, or are they just there to show how the thing affects their lives? I don’t think any of them are that interesting in their own right, independently of the point they’re meant to illustrate.

But still, a very interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile book.  Science fiction where economics is the science is certainly a new one on me!