About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019 and I am now properly retired and trying to write a novel. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 25 April 2019

"The Biographer's Tale" by A S Byatt

On a whim, Phineas Gilbert Nanson, a post-graduate research student decides to abandon how work on post0structural literary criticism and begin working for Professor Ormerod Goode on a biography of a biographer called Scholes Destry-Scholes whose masterwork was a biography of Victorian polymath Elmer Bole. In the course of his researches he discovers that SDS's notes towards biographies of Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen include deliberate distortions. He spends some time trying to classify a box of index cards and another of photographs at the home of SDS's grand-niece Vera Alphage with whom he has an affair. He also meets bee ecologist Fulla Biefield and works for travel agents Erik and Christophe, fending off the advances of sex tourist Maurice Bossey.

Bonkers names and a bonkers plot. It seemed that Byatt was, perhaps like Brecht, trying to tell me not to take any of this seriously. And yet like Phineas trying to build a narrative from the muddle of SDS's notes I tried to make some sense out of this. I speculated that SDS would turn out to be Ormerod Goode who had written a hoax biography of an eminent Victorian and was not hoaxing his PhD student to research it. But that would require a conventional plot that actually led somewhere. I then wondered whether the whole thing was en elaborate post-structuralist joke and that the point is that there is no coherence to our lives so why do novelists attempt to build a coherent narrative about coherent characters (“I suspect that much of what we stigmatise as irresolution is due to our Self being by no means one and indivisible.” ; p 224) There was something in this, I felt, given that this was an analogy with the activities of a number of the characters: Phineas himself, Fulla, trying to understand ecosysterms, and the travel agents specialising in constructing tours that collected together the a number of places connected only by the thread of their clients' whim. So I decided that this was, essentially, a novel 'about' the idea that we discover or construct or impose patterns within the randomness of real facts (if there are such things) and that the journey of Phineas from post-structuralist to travel agent cum beetle researcher was a journey from the chaos of the Maelstrom to the chaos of the Maelstrom interpreted as meaning. As Phineas tells us: 

  • “One of the reasons I had given up post-structuralist thought was the disagreeable amount of imposing that went on in it. You decided what you're looking for, and then duly found it ... This was made worse by the fact that the deconstructionists and others paid lip-service to the idea that they must not impose - they even went so far as half-believing they must not find, either. And yet they discovered the same structures, the same velleities, the same evasions quite routinely in the most disparate texts.” (p 144)

(I had to look up velleity. It is a whim or a desire not sufficiently strong to lead one to actually do something.)

Byatt being Byatt she writes beautifully, if somewhat obscurely at times. Here are some of her great lines:

  • “I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness.” (p 2)
  • “In the late afternoon gloom he was like some demonic owl hooting de profundis.” (p 6)
  • “I often feel that the tableland of sanity, on which most of us dwell, is small in area, with unfenced precipices on every side, over any one of which we may fall.” (p 60)
  • “He even conducted a statistical survey of the longevity of those (queens, princes, bishops) regularly prayed for in churches, to see if the force of prayer improved their life expectancy. It did not.” (p 71)
  • “He had constructed himself to be looked at. Famous men walk behind, or inside, a simplified mask, constructed from inside and outside simultaneously.” (p 79)
  • “Most people die without ever having lived. Luckily for them, they don't realise it.” (p 85)
  • “The true literary fanatic, the primeval reader, is looking for anything but a mirror - for an escape route, for an expanding horizon, for receding starscapes, for unimaginable monstrosities and incomprehensible (strictly) beauties.” (p 100)
  • “Aimless is the wrong word. I had too many aims, towards all points of the compass.” (p 104)
  • “This creature was living, and will be dead, a photograph says, according to Barthes.” (p 140)
  • “The horror of Mirrors is nothing to the horror of photographs.” (p 140)
  • “I began to think in a mad way that a biography was a kind of snuff movie.” (p 190)
  • “We as yet understand nothing of the way in which our conscious cells are related to the separate lives of the billions of cells of which the body of each of us is composed. We only know that the cells form a vast nation, some members of which are always dying and others growing to supply their places and that the continual sequence of these multitudes of little lives has its outcome in the large and conscious life of the man as a whole. Our part in the universe may possibly in some distant way be analogous to that of the cells in an organised body, and our personalities maybe the transient but essential elements of an immortal and cosmic mind.” (p 225)
  • “Accuracy is not the strong point of artists. They think as much of shadows as of substances.” (p 227)

April 2019; 260 pages

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

"A kid for two farthings" by Wolf Mankowitz

Set in the East End of London. While his mum does piece work making hats, Joe, too young for school, is looked after by Mr Kandinsky who, helped by Shmule, sews trousers in the basement. When Joe's pet, a day-old chick, dies, he goes into the market to buy a unicorn. The unicorn is crooked, and very sickly, but unicorns have the power to grant wishes.

  • Joe wants his father to come back from Africa.
  • Mr Kandinsky wants a steam trouser press.
  • Shmule wants to be a body-building champion but needs to earn money through professional wrestling against fighters who frighten him.
  • Sonia wants Shmule to buy her a diamond ring which is why Shmule is wrestling.

Will dreams come true?

A charming story told from the perspective of a little boy and full of wonderful characterisations and superbly caught dialogue.

Some great lines:

  • "Life is all dreams - dreams and work. That's all it is." (C 1)
  • "'For how long?' she said, 'how long is anyone pretty?'" (C 1)
  • "Naturally small animals only have small lives and naturally they lose them more easily." (C 1)
  • "Everybody needs a name, otherwise how can they know who they are?" (C 4)
  • "They only talked to themselves, mumbling all the time, sometimes having arguments alone." (C 4)
  • "One of the things about games is that unless you keep adding to them and working out new ideas, they get dull - not the games really, but you get dull in the games, and then they seem dull."(C 7)
  • "Once the evening comes, what does it matter how bright or dull the day has been?" (C 9)

A beautifully told novella from the author of Make me an Offer. April 2019; 97 pages

This was made into a film directed by Carol Reed and starring such luminaries as David Kossof playing Mr Kandinsky and Diana Dors playing Sonia. Wolf Mankowitz is perhaps better known for his contribution to the world of films: he is the man Apart from going to Downing College Cambridge (where I followed twenty years later) Wolf Mankowitz is the man who introduced Cubby Broccoli to Harry Saltzman which led to the James Bond films; having written the screenplay for Dr No, Wolf thought it was not good enough so asked that his name be removed from the screen credits.

Monday, 22 April 2019

"Make me an offer" by Wolf Mankowitz

Apart from going to Downing College Cambridge (where I followed twenty years later) Wolf Mankowitz is the man who introduced Cubby Broccoli to Harry Saltzman which led to the James Bond films; having written the screenplay for Dr No, Wolf thought it was not good enough so asked that his name be removed from the screen credits. He also wrote A kid for two farthings which was made into a film directed by Carol Reed and starring such luminaries as David Kossof playing Mr Kandinsky and Diana Dors playing Sonia.

This novella tells the story of an antique dealer who specialises in ceramics having loved the Portland Vase in the British Museum when he was a boy. He has learned how to buy and sell from his father who is a market trader. The narrator-protagonist goes to a stately home whose contents (including the panelling and even the lead from the roof) are due to be auctioned off; he discovers that the room full of Wedgwood is actually full of copies but that the lodge contains some very valuable pieces which were stolen some years before. But the auction trade has many opportunities for a wide boy to make a few bob and our hero has a number of tricks up his sleeve as he shucks and jives his way to some profitable deals.

What immediately attracted me to this little book is the command Monowitz has as he weaves language and plot and character together. He sees all life as a metaphor for dealing. For example, at the start of chapter two he describes how his baby, having been grumpy, gets a bottle: "His smile was full of satisfaction and triumph. He'd pulled it off once again, and was getting to feel infallible. I knew how he felt. I felt the same way when I managed to run something at auction." In chapter eleven he metaphorises death as bankruptcy: "It wanted just another bad winter or a really bad deal to put him out of business."

There is another nice moment of metaphor when he has just discovered that the Wedgwood he has been considering buying is fake and one of his many dodgy business associates ends up being fooled by purchasing counterfeit dollars. This ramps up the tension when the hero actually buys the Wedgwood, knowing it to be fake, on behalf of others; you are never quite sure whether he is playing them or they are playing him. As he says: "You can't be too sure. You can't be too careful. You can be too clever. You can't be clever enough. It's a bad lookout." (C 6)

In addition to this he starts off with the line "As far as I know it started when I was about eleven" which just makes you want to read on and then he suggests that an exhibit in the British Museum moves. I was hooked from page two.

But the best of the book is that he is describing some wonderfully seedy characters in the dog eat god of the antiques trade. It's very Del Boy.

There are a lot of great lines for such a little book:

  • "The air was deep blue and very solid, and I thought suddenly that the vase was solid night carved with figures of pure light." (C1)
  • "I reached out and put my hand on my wife's thigh. It was warm and I wanted to go to sleep again with my hand there, but she jerked away suddenly, as if I was a roadsweeper trying to feel the brush texture in one of the paintings at Wildenstein's." (C3)
  • "When you walk around in the middle of the night it takes a while before you can really say you're thinking about anything particular." (C3)
  • "It's a funny game, this dealing. Nothing's worth anything until you sell it, and then it's worth whatever you can get for it." (C3)
  • "If you want to be unpleasant about it, dealing is sordid, and the dealer is a whore. But you won't pretend that whoring isn't hard work or that it doesn't supply a need. We don't have to be in love with the customer. We just have to take him upstairs." (C3)
  • "I'm no better, nor fundamentally different from the girl trading on Birdcage Walk on a wet Saturday evening. When things are bad my standards and my prices go down." (C3)
  • "Two smiles were fished out from the bottom of their spleens by a couple of American friends. They put them back quickly to save wear and tear." (C 6)
  • "I mused on the idiocy of a life which tosses you money when you don't work for it, and a bellyful of promises when you do." (C6)
  • "My stomach was self-supporting at the moment and I wanted to make some small contribution." (C7)
  • "He loved trees but only when they were chopped down." (C7)
  • "It's got a nice atmosphere of decay - and I love the way the herbaceous border's gone tropical and the trees haven't been pruned and the bushes haven't had a haircut in years." (C9)
  • "Her expression meant nothing. It was just a dish cover and no one could say what she had on the dish." (C 10)
  • "He couldn't think of more than one thing at a time, and thinking about that one little thing took up all the breath and blood and life he had left in him." (C 11)
  • "The dealer was like the ring master in a dream circus ... Who knew better than he that nothing is given, that everything passes, the woods decay? He was the ultimately human being." (C 11)

A delightful bijou offering. April 2019; 85 pages

Sunday, 21 April 2019

"A Thing in Disguise" by Kate Colquhon

This is a biography of Joseph Paxton, one of the remarkable men of the Victorian age. He was born in 1803, the seventh son and ninth and last child of a farm labourer who died when he was six. Yet this lad, born in rural poverty during the Napoleonic wars, a young boy during the Luddite riots and at the time of the Peterloo massacre, during the early days of the industrial revolution when there was great rural and urban poverty, went on to become one of the most celebrated men in England and a knight of the realm. It must have helped that he was a workaholic. But it is a remarkable story.

Strangely, the tale intersects with many aspects of my own life. My father told me about seeing, when he was a boy, Crystal Palace burn down; as a young boy I remember being taken to the park that was left after the Palace burned and seeing the famous model dinosaurs. Paxton was born in Milton Bryant, near Woburn, in Bedfordshire where I live. I tried to learn the violin in Turnham Green. At one stage he bought the orchid collection of the vicar of Kimbolton, a post later filled by the step-father of my wife's first husband. One of his collectors collected plants from Sylhet; I am proud to be friendly with many Sylhetis. He designed Shepperton Park near where I grew up.

He was originally a gardener. He learned his trade in Battlesden Park near Woburn and then completed his horticultual education in the gardens of the Horticultural Society adjoining Chsiwick House in Turnham Green. The owner of Chiswick House was the Duke of Devonshire; he had a private gate into this gardens. At some time he met Paxton there and offered him the job of Head Gardener at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, one of the country's foremost stately homes. Paxton was 23.

Paxton fully lived up to this formidable promotion, spending vast sums of the Duke's money on creating splendid gardens at Chatsworth. Gardening was in its competitive heyday with plant collectors scouring the globe. Paxton's special triumph was cultivating the first flowering water lily in England.  But he had already begun to branch out. He created England's first municipal park in Birkenhead. He became a specualtor and a shareholder in a number of railway companies and began to advise the government on the royal gardens. He founded and edited some gardening magazines and later became one of the founders of the Daily News, originally edited by Charles Dickens. Late in life he became an MP.  But he is most remembered as the man who designed the Crystal Palace (basically an enormous greenhouse) for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park (it was later moved to Sydenham where it burned in the 1930s).

This is a biography of a most remarkable man. He had boundless energy and the ability (or the arrogance) to turn his hand to so many different ventures. I did feel sorry for the wife he left at home when his career began to explode into the limelight. He should be better known.

April 2019; 253 pages

Saturday, 20 April 2019

"One on one" by Craig Brown

This is a great book! It is built on the seven steps premise, the idea that you can link yourself to anyone in the world in just seven steps (this is also known as the small world phenomenon: it is a meme started by an experiment by the psychologist Stanley Milgram as explained in Small World by Mark Buchanan). Except Craig Brown (I knew him at school so that's one step right there) links Adolf Hitler with Adolf Hitler through 101 encounters. Thus, Adolf  was knocked down by John Scott-Ellis who, at another time, met Rudyard Kipling who had once met Mark Twain who sometime later encountered Helen Keller who worked with Martha Graham who taught Madonna who ... and so it goes on until Charlie Chaplin plays tennis against Groucho Marx who meets T S Eliot who reads poetry to The Quuen Mother who discusses kitchens with the Duchess of Windsor who met Adolf Hitler. It goes back in time as far as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky and Madonna is perhaps the most contemporary; it covers writers and royals, painters and poets and politicians, actors and dancers and rock stars, a couple of religious gurus and a philosopher. I loved it.

It is all extensively researched and cited. To compound the bonkers brilliance of this game, each encounter is written in 1001 words (I don't know whether the many extensive footnotes are counted).

Celebrities, or at least this selection of them, are almost uniformly eccentric to the point of lunacy. Sex comes up time and again. It seems to me that to be anyone in the celebrity world you have to have sex with at least seven other celebrities.

Many of the most quotable moments belong to other people so I have tried to select my favourite bits from what Craig has written:

  • "Gurdjieff ... was the most earthy of men, enjoying huge three-course meals, washed down with Armagnac, while his followers made do with bowls of thin soup. ... he often didn't bother to use the lavatory, preferring to defecate willy-nilly. ... He was a stranger to celibacy." P L Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was one of his devotees!
  • "Jack Kerouac ... collapsed while watching The Galloping Gourmet on television, then died in hospital of cirrhosis of the liver."
  • "Traditionally, members of the royal family are granted a special licence as entertainers. Their efforts at sparkling, however dim, are greeted with enthusiasm; their repartee, however pedestrian, sets tables aroar; their musical forays, however painful, are hailed as delightful. This conspiracy of sycophancy has, over the years, led one or two of them to gain an inflated notion of their own talents."
  • "When his father first warned him that he was spending too much, Elvis tried to calm him down by buying him a Mercedes."
  • "When the Book of the Month club asks him to change the title [of The Catcher in the Rye], Salinger explains that Holden Caulfield won't agree to it."
  • "Now aged forty-nine, penniless and plump, Isadora Duncan has seen better days. ... Dorothy Parker nicknames her 'Duncan Disorderly'."
  • "She has always been prone to rage, and her progress around the world has been marked by the splinters of hotel furniture."

This book is incredibly clever and great fun. I loved it.

April 2019; 332 pages

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

"Brief lives" by Anita Brookner

A devastatingly sad book, told from the point of view of an old lady, a childless widow, about getting old. Fay's reminiscences are triggered by the death of an old acquaintance, Julia, with whose life Fay's intersected.

Julia is a wonderful character: an ex-actress, hugely manipulative but adored by her small group of devotees. Not one of them appears to be enjoying life. They are all purposeless, without dreams, without love, perhaps without hope, as they grow older. In the end age defeats even Julia.

This is a book about the old. The young are kept very much in the sidelines, although there is a meal at a restaurant near the end where the three old ladies watch the antics of the couples courting over their meals. But the men die young while the old linger. Thus we meet old ladies slowly declining again and again. There are many reflections on growing old:
  • “Maybe the virtue of growing older is that one is more stoical; one accepts the burden of life, knowing that the alternative is simply death, non-existence, non-feeling.” (C2)
  • “Growing old is so meaningless when there are no young people to watch.” (C4)
  • “She was now utterly indifferent to her surroundings, did not notice those sad odours, had become an old lady who wore thick stockings and wide shoes, she who had been so fastidious, so critical, so elegant in her modest way.” (C7)
Chapter one is by way of being a prologue, framing the reminiscences. The story goes back to the start in chapter two. 

There are regular hooks interposed in the story to tell you that something terrible is about to happen. This starts in the first paragraph of chapter one: “I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.” It continues throughout:
  • “But I was never destined for a happy ending, although I was so very happy at the beginning.” (C 2)
  • “I only learnt this much later, and even now I have to learn the lesson every day.” (C2)
  • "For a moment or two I sat in horror, knowing that love had gone and would never return.” (C6)
  • “Growing up means growing away, and everyone is eager to begin the work. It is only half way that one begins to look back, and by then it is already too late.” (C 11)
  • “It was as if from that moment on the she decided to take me seriously, at no cost to herself. The cost, she determined, would be all mine.” (C13) 
There are some wonderful pathetic fallacies and metaphors:
  • “I remember being dazzled by the many cut glass mirrors and decanters in her tiny over-furnished sitting-room, but not too dazzled to notice a fine bloom of dust. Vinnie herself had something of the same glitter and dustiness.” (C3)
  • “When I went into the kitchen with the food I took over, I could smell stale dusters and dishcloths, hear the tap dripping into the new red plastic basin I had bought her, see that the clock had stopped, that she had not replaced last year's calendar, which still showed September, under a reproduction of Canaletto's Warwick Castle.” (C7)
  • “A powdery tear, like a very small pearl, made its way down her cheek, leaving no identifiable trace behind.” (C12)
More brilliant lines:
  • “Widowhood does not exactly increase the number of things one has to talk about.” (C1)
  • “She lived on omelettes and whisky, maintaining that she liked neither, and appeared none the worse for it.” (C1)
  • “Father was too amiable to feel desire: what he wanted was an easy life, without challenges or impossible dreams” (C2)
  • “It is inherent in the organism to want to endure for as long as possible, even for ever, so that one becomes willing to take on all the mishaps, all the tragedies, if they are the price to be paid.” (C2)
  • “Now I see that it is sometimes necessary to meet withdrawal with withdrawal, dismissal with dismissal.” (C4)
  • “The sight of an abandoned plate containing a biscuit from which a minute bite had been taken, as if by a child, and which my mother had felt unable to finish, affected me inordinately. ... It was her last meal.” (C7)
  • “I had not known in that it is not necessary to marry every man one loves. I know it now. Now I realize that it is marriage which is the great temptation for a woman, and that one can, and perhaps should, resist it.” (C7)
  • “It was my duty now to be obscure and self-sufficient, as befits all widows.” (C8)
  • “Adultery is not noble. Adulterous lovers are not allowed to be star-crossed. Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are not really heroines. Even when there is real love, authentic love, it is not the sort in which one rejoices.” (C9)
  • “That night I began a long training in duplicity, in calculation, in almost continuous discomfort, but also in confidence and expectation and effectiveness.” (C9)
  • “She had no idea of what made a book good or bad but judged it by the actions it contained in the first and last chapters.” ( C10)
  • “So solipsistic was Julia that it would not occur to her to wonder what he did when he was not with her.” (C 11)
  • “There is no appropriate attitude for a bereaved mistress, although she is spared the Job's comforters who attend the wife. The best thing she can do, or if not the best then certainly the most expedient, is to turn into one such comforter herself, aware of the hypocrisy involved, finding some relief in the savage alienation she feels.” (C12)
  • “Rage is better than grief, especially when no atonement is possible.” (C12)
  • “Why did she, without doing anything for anyone, inspire such devotion, while humbler, clumsier people like myself seemed doomed to do without?” (C12)
  • “Respectability is as much as can be hoped for; there is no woman so respectable as the one who has rediscovered virtue.” (C12)
  • “She was like one of those very early martyrs who cheerfully embraced their doom in the Colosseum without ever tasting the alternative.” (C12)
  • “I was free now, free of encumbrances, free of hope, that greatest of all encumbrances.” (C15)
  • “The old law, the commandment to go forth and multiply, was still the best, the only one that could stand the test of time. But for those who had not obeyed the commandment, or had mismanaged it, there was little on offer.” (C16)
At the end Fay, once a singer, remembers the songs she sung when she was young: “Though the words are affirmative the melodies are in a minor key, and sadder than they know. I could not sing them now. I know too much of this cruel world to sing them with the touching faith of yesterday.” (C17)


This is a beautifully written book but it is so depressing.

Anita Brookner has also written:

  • Hotel du Lac which won the Booker Prize in 1984 which I found brilliant
  • Family and Other Friends which is another book in which lives are viewed but the narrator in this book is impersonal, an outsider looking at the family photograph album

April 2019; 217 pages

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

"As You Like It" by William Shakespeare

Not one of William's best. There is even a suggestion that the title reflects the fact that it was written to please the groundlings: As You Like It.

I read it. Then I saw it broadcast live from the RSC on Wednesday 17th April at the Vue Cinema in Bedford. The production transformed my view of the play.

First of all, the RSC included audience participation. They took 'As You Like It' seriously. They suggested that this is the play more than any other in which Shakespeare breaks down the fourth wall. I'm not 100% sure what this means. Does this mean that the actor speaks directly to the audience? Because if that is the case then one might suggest that every soliloquy in Shakespeare is a fourth wall destruction. Or do they mean that the actor interacts with the audience which implies that the audience itself has an input? Certainly in this production the actors, from time to time, jumped off the stage, they distributed Orlando's poems to members of the audience, then collected them again, Orlando even invited four members of the audience up on to the stage to act as trees on which he could hang the letters of the word ROSALIND. But this is not the same as interaction. Interaction implies that some input from an audience member might have the power to alter what is happening on the stage. This never happened. Might it? One of the features that distinguishes drama as entertainment from, for example, sport as entertainment is that in drama every moment is scripted and preordained whereas in sport no one can be certain what is going to happen next. Perhaps this is why sport has mass appeal and my beloved theatre is a minority art form nowadays.

So I don't really understand this fourth wall business. But how was it that the RSC production transformed what I thought was a rather silly play, with some obscure Shakespearean jokes and far too many minor characters, into nearly three hours of enjoyment?

One of the things that an actor does is to take words and add physicality. Time and again the RSC company added their bodies to transform the script. Here are a few examples:

  • Humour I had thought obscure and difficult became bawdy jokes. For example, there is one bit where Touchstone (played as a wonderfully seedy Rod Stewart) is teasing Corin about whether the countryside or the court is better and Corin tells him that courtiers are better because they have hands perfumed with civet rather than hands filthied from touching sheep and Touchstone makes a joke which depends on the audience knowing that civet comes from the anal glands of cats and it worked!
  • LeBeau (played superbly by Emily Johnstone), a courtier who supervises the wrestling match became a short lady in a tight skirt and high heels that tilted every time that she walked on the grass wrestling ring. Her timing was perfect and her gestures and facial movements enhanced the comedy. 
  • When Touchstone (superbly played by Sandy Grierson) goes into the country with Rosalind and Celia he is the one to take a suitcase on wheels (which enables him to climb down to the stage with the suitcase dangling from his foot!). 
  • Another clever moment was the wooing of Audrey by Touchstone; Audrey was played as a deaf character and Touchstone required William to sign for him which meant that when he calls Audrey a slattern he tries, unsuccessfully, to stop the signing. When Celia hides on stage she covers herself with her skirts creating a sort of brown mound which gets sat on. Rosalind hid by dropping off the stage into the stalls.
  • Anthony Byrne playing a chillingly evil Duke Frederick went from gracious ruler to cold-blooded tyrant in a breath with a pause and a twist of his face. Leo Wan achieved the same effect as Oliver. (Neither actor had the same opportunities when they played nice people, which suggests that either Shakespeare is really best at villains or that I prefer wicked characters.)

The question has to be asked whether Shakespeare himself was sufficiently wonderful a dramatist that he knew that his words would be interpreted in such a way. Harold Pinter's stage directions are detailed and exact: he tells the actor precisely how to play the scene. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has sparse stage directions (as was the fashion of his time). Was this deliberate? Was he giving his actors freedom to interpret his words how they wished to? Is it this (which clearly actors relish) that has given him longevity?

It is my belief that Shakespeare was a playwright who wrote for the company he knew (and with which he acted) and that therefore the paucity of stage directions is partly due to the fact that the plays were created together with the cast. As You Like It is actually a key piece of evidence for this theory. It has been suggested by James Shapiro ('1599') that the clown who played Falstaff left the Globe company after Merry Wives and before Henry V, which is why Falstaff does not appear in Henry V (we learn of his off stage death) and that the new clown was a very different character for whom Shakespeare wrote the part of Touchstone and subsequent comic parts. This supports the idea of Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright who worked with a company of actors, rather than an amateur such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.

The likely dating of the play shows that it was written at a very interesting moment in the canon. The Oxford Schools Shakespeare edition edited by Roma Gill with additional material by Judith Kneen (1977) dates it to 1599 (part of the evidence for this is Phoebe's lines in Act Three Scene 6 (lines 80-81): “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:/ ‘Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?’” when she quotes Marlowe and by describing him as dead it is taken to be a reference to the fact that Marlowe is already dead which happened in 1593; also in AYLI (3.3) Touchstone says that "When a man’s verses cannot be understood ... it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room" which is sometimes taken to be a reference that Marlowe was supposedly stabbed after a quarrel about a bar bill) shortly after Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing and during the hiatus between Henry IV part 2 and Henry V.

There were some wonderful performances.  Beside those already mentioned, Sophie Khan Levy played Celia, a part that really hasn't much meat, beautifully. David Ajao was a great Orlando who recruited audience members to act as trees so he could hang his lobe letters. Rosalind and Touchstone really made the most of Shakespeare's laughing at the poor quality of these poems. But the absolute star of the show was Lucy Phelps as Rosalind. She could change in an instant from Rosalind to Ganymede, she was able to communicate with the audience by more changes of her features which enabled her to provide a sort of commentary on the play, she was able to rush through some of Shakespeare's lines at breakneck speed and still keep the sense, she was superb.

The part of Rosalind, the girl who disguises herself as a boy who pretends to be a girl is a wonderfully strong female part and the part of Jaques, the melancholy man, is also brilliant. These are definite pluses for the play.

On the other hand, despite Jaques having the famous "All the world's a stage" speech, there are fewer quotable quotes than Shakespeare's normal quotient. This might be because there is a lot less poetry in this play; a surprisingly large number of the lines are in prose.

I would have advised Will on some cuts to improve this play. For example, in Act Five Scene 1 Touchstone and Audrey meet William who wants to marry Audrey; Touchstone teases him and William departs. There is almost no point to this scene. Remove it! Furthermore, in a desperately contrived ending, the good news that the bad Duke has had a change of heart and is retiring in favour of the good Duke is brought on by a new character called Jacques who is the apparently long-lost middle brother of Oliver and Orlando and absolutely no relation to Jaques. Get rid of him. Find someone else to break this news if you really can't find a more satisfactory resolution to the play. Or if you can't do that rename him. Essentially this play suffers from too many characters and too much plot and too little thoughtful development of character. At the end there are four happy marriages made, mostly between people who have fallen in love at first sight.

And how on earth is anyone to believe that Rosalind can get away with pretending to be a boy to her father or (repeatedly) to the man who loves her and who even woos Rosalind as a boy pretending to be his girlfriend Rosalind. It's bonkers. Disbelief seriously suspended.

But there's a wrestling match and there are a lot of songs. The sort of play with plenty of spectacle which makes actors happy: they love to show off and sing and dance. And the RSC managed to turn an overcast play with a bonkers plot into fun entertainment which , after all, is what it's all about.

Shakespeare's thesis is that love at first sight is lasting and that the life of simple rustics is so much better than the life at court; that bad thoughts can be healed by nature: “... Are not these woods/ More free from peril than the envious court?” (2.1.3-4). Classic romantic pap. I'm surprised that either Rosalind or Jaques will stand for it.

But it does have some good quotes:
  • “Hereafter, in a better world from this,/ I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.” (1.2.258-9)
  • “Treason is not inherited, my lord.” (1.3.56)
  • “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” (2.1.12)
  • “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” (2.5.11)
  • “If he, compact of jars, grow musical,/ We shall have shortly discord in the spheres.” (2.7.5-6)
  • “ And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,/ And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot,/ And thereby hangs a tale.” (2.7.26 - 28)
  • “Do you know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” (3.3.225)
  • “Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons.” (3.3.280)
  • “Love is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark-house and a whip as mad men do.” (3.3.359)
  • “A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men's.” (4.1.20- 21)
  • “Men have died from time to time - and worms have eaten them - but not for love.” (4.1.92 - 93)
April 2019