Random observations from the English summer ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Random observations from the English summer

Ms TN is going to come over all bloggish and type an actual diary entry, since I'm sure you are all bereft since TN hefted herself into the northern hemisphere. Or perhaps, more realistically, some of you are mildly curious about what I'm doing. But first, a confession: I am typing this because the remote controls attached to British televisions are, like the First Sefiroth, wholly beyond comprehension. I unwarily pressed a button marked "P" and found myself in a labyrinth of commands which, after much cursing and frantic button pushing, finally led me to a television picture of grey snow. All this technology to take me back to the tv coverage of the 1950s, only without the comfort of warming valves. I miss the kind of remote that is still prevalent in the primitive antipodes, which merely goes to Channel 2 when you press "2".

But, I hear you cry in horror, what's this? Did Ms TN travel through a dozen time zones merely to watch television? Well, not really; but I was planning a night in with John McEnroe and the latest from Wimbledon, which is the kind of sports coverage that would make Channel Seven blush with shame, were the programming chiefs not actually giant lizards in the process of taking over the world, and so immune to human delicacies and shame. Yes, there are compensations for Britain's watery sunshine. Wimbledon and Dr Who (which is as huge on the wow factor as rumour rumours) are two of them. 

But I haven't only been glued to the BBC. I have been out imbibing some of that history the English are so keen on erasing with carparks. A weekend in Cambridge is enough to make you thoughtful on this point: on the one hand, exquisite 17th century colleges, their perfect lawns cut with nail scissors by armies of specially trained topiarists, and on the other, blocks of concrete dropped in from the sky. (This is, admittedly, rather unkind to Churchill College, which hasn't aged as gracelessly as most 70s architecture, though someone said that was because of its beautiful gardens).

On Friday and Saturday I stayed at the Moeller Centre at Churchill, a cutting-edge example of 70s Danish design with an alien hexagon dropped into its middle for reasons that are not very clear, but which creates a roof terrace that looks like a set for a movie in which sophisticated 20-somethings drape themselves carelessly over S-bend furniture and drop their false eyelashes into their martinis. It is clearly designed for MBAs in conference mode, no doubt with facilitators, and so boasts televisions, internet connections, classy shampoos and body wash and even white flannel dressing gowns. Which was, for me at least, quite unexpected.

On Sunday night I moved into a room at the rather less well appointed but undeniably more atmospheric Pembroke College, looking over the Library Lawn, which is just past the building you see on the right in the picture below. (The building that looks like a church is actually the Library, and the building on the right is the very beautiful neoclassical Pembroke Chapel, which is Christopher Wren's first building). And then I went to see the double bill of the masque Comus - John Milton's version and John Kinsella's eco-warrior "reply"at Christ's College down the road, of which more In Due Course.

All this excessive history and expensively cut grass is probably why the Cambridge dons get all stern and modern. In fact, most people who live in Cambridge are dismissive of its gorgeousness.  One Cambridge don (I think he was a don) told me last night, as I was admiring the rooftops of Christ's College silhoetted against the miraculously luminous summer night sky: "The problem is that nothing has changed since the 17th century". A few things have changed: they let women in, for instance. But I suppose that carefully groomed privilege gets stifling, not to mention the peasants muttering as they rake the leaves. And I have to remember that this is a country where I can pick up the major left wing daily and read a columnist objecting to rude language (a) because it comes from the "lower ranks" and (b) because it is "inherently discourteous to women". (Max, what if it's the women swearing, eh? Are they being inherently discourteous to men?)

Still, as I had an hour to kill on Sunday, such considerations didn't stop me getting in a punt and floating down the Cam, watching the ducks nipping each other at close quarters. And there's no getting away from it: Cambridge is incredibly beautiful.

Now I'm back in London, less beautiful but more vital, planning some leisurely socialising and maybe even a trip to the theatre. After that deeply interesting week at UEA in Norwich (when I took copious notes, none of which I feel like writing up) and my Cambridge weekend, I've finished masquerading as a university person and am uncloseting as a tourist. It's quite restful, after 10 days which have mainly been concerned, one way and another, with talking about climate change and corporate depredation. 

Completing the brainmelt, I managed to get the television working by using another remote, although I'm quite sure it's using the wrong buttons, and my absent hosts will have to untangle whatever unholy mess I've made of the remote control programming. And I watched a BBC documentary which explained something I've noticed over the past few days: why English dress shops are full of cheap, gaudy tat. They are made, wholly unsurprisingly, by Indian children working in sweat shops: and the much-vaunted "ethical policies" of the chain stores are deeply dubious. It strikes me there are worse things in Britain than indecent language. 

1 comment:

Andrew Haydon said...

In fairness the the Guardian, Max Hastings is employed as a columnist largely because he is a fairly traditional old Tory. He used to be editor of first the Daily Telegraph and then the Evening Standard (I think it's that way round). At the Telegraph he was actually something of a moderniser (!), but yes, in the Guardian that article did read a little like one of those 'From The Archives' things from the 1950s.

I giggled my way through the article before texting a female friend to whom I frequently say 'fuck' in order to check she hadn't been offended. Tellingly, 'fuck' was already in my predictive text and 'discourteous' wasn't.