Friends are Friends (even if they are annoying). Reflections on singing toads.

It is funny sometimes how certain books and stories hang around long after they have become completely outdated. I was thinking about this at the weekend after going to the West End production of ‘Wind in the Willows’ at the Palladium. I am fan of musical theatre anyway and there is some good stuff in the West End if people are similarly inclined; the musical version of ‘School of Rock’ is tremendous fun for example, and the current revival of ‘42nd Street’ is positively exhausting to watch as the tap dancing is superb, constant and full on. I am also a fan of the work of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe whose work is positively charming, if a little silly. The additional songs they provided to the stage version of ‘Mary Poppins’ and more recently ‘Half A Sixpence’ are by far my favourite songs from those productions. On their own though, I do feel they get a bit bogged down in their own cleverness to deliver a cheese laden rhyme a bit too often.

But I heartily enjoyed ‘Wind in the Willows’ as it has too much charm not leave you with a smile on your face and the cast give it all they can as this is not the kind of production that fits well with subtle. At its best it almost descends into Monty Python farce – notably as Mr Toad is chased by the not very competent forces of law following his escape from prison disguised as a washer woman – and the weasels are having too much fun being bad (but not too bad, this is after all a family show).

But coming back to my opening; ‘Wind in the Willows’ is so wonderfully outdated in so many ways. That’s perhaps not surprising since the book dates from 1908. It is all about a weird world of animals that reflects our own through the anthropomorphism with loads of unsubtle subtext on class, which, being form 1908, ends up with the idiot aristocracy back in charge and very little changed despite the defeat of the uprising of the arguably working class mob (something that the musical version pulls out well – the folk of the Wild Wood really believe that they have a right to Toad Hall, which Mr Toad of course takes completely for granted).

So why does it sustain? I think two main reasons for me. The first is to anchor the story with central core of the friendship and camaraderie of the characters of Toad, Ratty, Mole and Badger; this is the core of the book and strongly – perhaps a tad too strongly – played out in the musical version, through song obviously. The message is a simple explanation of something rather more complex; if someone is a friend, you stick by them through thick and thin, even if they are sometimes really, really, annoying.

Secondly for me, it is the fantasy element which allows some of the outdated attitudes that are present by virtue of the date of writing to be absorbed into the imagined parallel animal world which clear is not trying at all to contain any form of realism; although I have to say that all the stuff in the story about cars, in 1908 still very new, still seems valid today, dare I say it pushing part of this into the speculative fiction field– the idea of some idiot terrorising the countryside in the search for speed without care for their own life or anyone else’s whether it be human or hedgehog is something we have probably all experienced at some point. Unlike the world of Mr Toad though, consequences in our world can be a lot worse.


To Hull And Back

Considering just how hot it is here in the UK now, as I swelter trying to type this out with hot sticky fingers it amuses me that over the last couple of days I have been reminding myself of spending three hours freezing cold early on a July morning last year. The Lovely Wife and I took the opportunity of seeing my Dad for Father’s Day to stop off on the way back to see the small but interesting ‘Skin’ exhibition in Hull. The core of this are some of the finished photos from Spencer Tunick’s ‘Sea of Hull’ series of installations photographed last year, in which I participated, along with over three thousand other insane people. The photos are impressive and I’m rather proud to be in them, even if, to be honest, I am a tiny bluey-green blob buried somewhere among a mass of (variably) bluey-green blobs. The final works are quite impressive, even pretty (the Lovely Wife agrees) which is somewhat different impression on the day as it is rather difficult to work out what something like this will look like when you are participating. Individual brush strokes cannot see what the final picture will look like.

Around the time most comments I received other than ‘you’re mad’ where related to the whole concept of being naked around so many strangers.  Personally, I think that is not actually a problem because the sheer mass of humanity just emphasises how diverse we are and how much clothing can be a barrier in a way to treating each other as human beings. I had lots of interesting conversations (you had to fill the time somehow) with complete strangers of both sexes and all ages, who just happened to be also naked and painted one of four shades of blue. There is quite a lively online community now where people have identified with the shade of blue they had been randomly allocated. I belong to the B3 brigade for the record. I think that the most embarrassment you can have regarding getting undressed is probably in the company of a handful of people that you know a bit, but are not close friends – like people you work with. Complete strangers; fine. Very good friends; probably OK. Bill from accounts? No thank you.

Obviously, I have no concerns in taking part in what is a piece of art, and would happily do something like this again, although I think that something this scale rarely comes along. I cannot say all the experience was enjoyable. The wind whistles off the North Sea mercilessly and while it was July we started in the early hours and finished about 7am, if we were not already painted blue then that probably would have been the predominant colour anyway. The whole thing lasted the best part of three hours, and I think that was a lot longer than many of us had anticipated. Finally, some parts of Hull have ground surfaces that might be long lasting and fine if you are wearing shoes but did not do nice things to bare feet.

While talking to the volunteer in the exhibition it appears a lot of participants have been through to look at the results. This is not that surprising as many of the participants came from the Hull area. One thing that was consistent is that many had the same views as I hold, in that they were happy they had taken part, and that it would be an experience that would stay with them (in a good way) for many years.

‘Skin’ is on at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull until August 13th   and admission is free.

While I can I must put in a good word for Hull itself. It has a poor reputation which maybe historically was justified but we have been there three times in a relatively short period and been charmed by the friendliness of the people, some very good pubs (shout out for The Sailmakers Arms) and restaurants (very good tapas at Ambiente Tapas on Humber Road) and some interesting historical connections with William Wilberforce and the fishing industry – there is plenty to enjoy and during its ‘City of Culture’ year is probably the best time to visit if so inclined.

Dressing Down

This week I will be attending several nice receptions and dinners as part of the kind of work I do at Industry level. I work in an industry that employs a lot of scientists and people I would describe (entirely positively) as having interesting and wide ranging experiences so they are usually quite fun affairs (although clearly the food and wine always helps). I have been lucky enough to be attending these sorts of things for over a decade now, but I am struck by how things have changes and fell into a bit of a reflection on whether changes were for good or ill.

About a decade ago, such a do would have been much more formal. It would be black tie for a start. Now let me quickly explain, because not everyone gets what I mean here. I was lucky enough to get into Oxford (I’ll be frank – I used the word lucky – or if you prefer, blessed –  as I am not bright enough but was good at exams and essay writing under pressure, which fitted the entrance system at the time. If I had to compete on the level people do now, with the grades that are required at a minimum I doubt I would have got in; but hey, it is now a matter of history). Going to that kind of institution teaches you somethings about dress code quite quickly. For example, certainly in the 90s (I mean the 1990’s although this could apply to any previous century come to think of it) if you turned up to your Final exams without the correct dress – dark suit, white shirt and white bow tie, gown and mortar board (although you could just carry that) you would not be allowed in and consequently fail. Not a great get up to take an exam in, especially in the heat of June 1992 (in my case). Half the problem was getting to exam halls on time as you are waylaid by enthusiastic tourists wanting to get a picture of themselves with funnily dressed and very stressed students. I do not know if this still the case – I suspect so. Things do not change quickly at such places.

Anyway, Industry dos – and work Christmas parties come to think of it – used to be Black Tie. Dinner jacket and dress trousers, dress shirt, black bow tie, and ideally a cummerbund to keep the gut in. It is an outfit designed to look smart and flatter, as much as is possible, even the most prestigious paunch – when correctly done. If you wanted to go a little further, then of course you must learn to tie your own bow tie – not a mean feat, but really, when is clip on anything classy? – and it is worth it as the evening moves on and becomes less formal you can undo it and go all a bit louche. If you can get a nice lady to undo it for you (and yes, I can testify many are up at least for this intimacy) then all the better.

I stopped wearing my Black-tie outfit to industry and work dos a long time ago mainly because I could see I was now in the minority. The abomination that is ‘lounge suit’ had taken over; basically, guys you just mean a normal business suit. Very sad, in some ways. I do sometimes dig out my white DJ and one of my bow ties because (1) I can tie it and the Lovely Wife likes to undo it and (2) In my fantasies this is the closest I look to James Bond – it’s enough Roger Moore for me anyway. But honestly I’ve given up now and frankly usually ditch the suit for smart trousers and a nice casual shirt; no one seems to mind; it means I get to carry less luggage and in some ways, it is more me… I have never been and never will be a Sharp Dressed Man. But part of me does feel that it all feels a little less special without the opportunity to dress up.


Different Shades

I spent my Sunday afternoon mostly in the company of dead people; Luckily they have been no longer with us for several hundred years in some cases and are very well behaved. OK, I admit it, I spent the afternoon in a mausoleum showing people around as part of my English Heritage volunteering.

Spending two hours in a cold and damp (medieval churches are by the far the coldest of places to inhabit on even the hottest of days) does not sound too much like fun, I admit, but you might be surprised. They can be interesting windows on the past both on specific individuals and their lives, successes and failures but also how people viewed the inevitability of death.

The De Grey Mausoleum is in the village of Flitton in Bedfordshire, attached to, but not belonging to, the parish church. Although it sits like a huge carbuncle enveloping the East end of the church it was the property of the De Grey family who used to own nearby Wrest Park House and Gardens and used the Mausoleum as the burial place for the family from 1614 to the end of the Nineteenth century. When Wrest was sold to the government in the 1940s the Mausoleum came with it which is why English Heritage have it on their books. It is nationally important because of the sheer size and the range of monuments.

What visitors first find interesting is the private nature of the Mausoleum. Despite the huge scale of some of the monuments and the assumed massive cost, this was not a public display of commemorated lives. The Mausoleum was a private place for the family only, a place for prayer and to honour your family. This does put a very different perspective on monuments that seem to hint at hubris or look as they were made to make a particular impression – they were built to make an impression, but only on descendants.

The monuments fall into three main groups, representing the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. The first, oldest group are formal, even grim monuments to the inevitability of death, illustrated by the effigies of the passed in formal state, while decoration includes grinning skulls and hourglasses born a lot on wings. Time, literally, flies. One in particular is poignant – Amabel (and no, I did not misspell her name) outlived her husband, the 10th Earl of Kent by some fifty years so will have visited her own effigy in pale alabaster many times. Seeing yourself laid out in state week in week out must have an interesting effect on how you viewed your own mortality.

As you go deeper into the Mausoleum the change into the Eighteenth century is striking. Suddenly it is all classical in form, columns and urns and effigies dressed as Roman soldiers. The finest monument in the Mausoleum is also the largest, a massive reclining effigy of Henry, Duke of Kent. The monuments from this period speak of celebration of achievement – this more than the others. He was the member of the family who reached the highest status in becoming a Duke and he wants you to know that. It is undercut considerably by the knowledge that all his children pre-deceased him and he was unable to pass on that status to his descendants. Before I started at the Mausoleum I saw Henry as a rather unsympathetic figure; now I rather feel sorry for him, as I suspect sadness was heavy upon him when he died.

The final section of the Mausoleum sees a final step change in style, with an unrestrained and unashamed dose of Victorian Romance. Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey (who designed the current Chateaux style house at Wrest) lies on his tomb in fine robes and with even finer whiskers, eyes closed in his realistically carved sleep. He could just wake up any moment; in fact, when we open up the Mausoleum for viewing we have to remove the shroud we lay over him to protect the monument from the acid droppings of the bats that share the building, and it is just a little creepy pulling it back to reveal the Earl; like a lot of the monuments of this type it is very realistically carved. It is a very beautiful monument, but my favourite is next to it, a wall monument to the Earl’s wife Henrietta, Thomas stands at the base, surrounded by weeping children; above his head his wife is carried up to Heaven in the arms of an angel. It is all terribly over the top in some respects but then sometimes we forget that Victoria herself set the standard for melodrama in mourning, and it is hard not to think of Thomas spending an hour every so often in a chair at the foot of his wife’s monument, near where now his own body lies – by all accounts they were, somewhat unusually for Victorian aristocracy – actually very fond of each other.

The monuments are both expressions of grief but also positive messages of a belief in something in the afterlife or at least a life well lived. You can take one, all or none of those messages as you like, but they are objects of beauty.

The De Grey Mausoleum is open (it is free) the first Sunday of the month, 2-4pm through the summer season and various Wednesdays – check the website . You might even find me lurking there with my distastefully beige volunteer uniform (but don’t let that put you off).