Wednesday, June 17, 2009

London to Newcastle

Before leaving London the first week in June, I crowded in lots of events—dinner at Adam Mars-Jones’ in Herne Hill with his partner Keith King; attending the launch of Cahal Dallatt’s excellent new book The Year of Not Dancing at the Troubadour Café, a program where other poets, including the gifted newcomer Maura Dooley, read; coffee with Sandeep Parmar, while James Byrne was in Belgrade receiving a poetry prize; spending an afternoon strolling around Hampstead with Mimi Khalvati; and having coffee with Anne-Marie Fyfe in the Embankment Gardens.

Also, I paid my invariable visit to the Tate Modern, lingering in the “Poetry and Surrealism” galleries; saw one art exhibition, the Kuniyoshi prints being shown at the Royal Academy, and two plays at the National Theatre. The first was Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, at the Olivier, with Nonso Anozie as Elesin, the “horseman of the king,” and Claire Benedict as Iyaloja, the “mother of the market,” and Giles Terera as the Praise Singer. The director Rufus Norris had the inspiration to cast all the roles, even the British colonials, with black actors, the latter roles played in “whiteface.” Which could suggest that underneath the externals, we are all Africans, an idea well supported if you consider the origin of the species Homo sapiens is African. Anyway, it was a vigorous evening, with ample, Brechtian crowd scenes in the market, singing, drumming, dancing, and satiric upbraiding of fools. To say it was an indictment of colonialism is correct but doesn’t sum up the various psychological forces involved. It is a mysterious work and I’d like to see it again.

The second play was Ted Hughes’s version of Racine's Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, with Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus and Margaret Tyzack as Oenone. The translation seemed good, the only problem being that I have quite a few of the French lines in my head, and could hear them when Hughes’s English equivalents were spoken, which became the source of a dissonance probably not too many in the audience had to deal with. I’d say most of the performances were good (and this was the first preview), though tending to go over the top. Mirren may have been away from the stage too long to feel altogether comfortable there, especially in something so grand as Phèdre. I liked Dominic Cooper, partly because some of his working class flavor infiltrated the performance, and partly because he has an angry intensity that he is able to draw on when apt for the lines. Of course the audience laughed at several points, which is inevitable for classical tragedy in our ironic era. But Nicholas Hytner probably shouldn’t have had Hippolytus vomit into a fountain basin on the stage-left wall after hearing Phèdre’s avowal of love. This provoked the loudest laughter of the evening. On the other hand, when she is giving us a portrait of her despair, Mirren smiles a lot, which is quite effective, marking out as it does that strange no-man’s-land between tragedy and comedy that we all know only too well. The production is also sited in an in-between time-space continuum, not archaic Greek nor yet modern but a mixture of the two. The same for the characters’ names, some of which keep their French form, others adopting the familiar anglicizations of classical names.

Departure: I came to Newcastle (strictly speaking, one should add the suffix “upon Tyne” to the name) on the fifth of this month settling in a short-term rental I found only at the last minute. I’m on the 13th floor of a high-rise building, next to the river and directly across from the Baltic Museum of Contemporary Art on the south bank of the Tyne, in the borough of Gateshead. The Museum is the result of a makeover of a flour mill built there in the 1950s and can be compared to the Tate Modern, though it only hosts temporary exhibitions. The current one has to do with the influence of Darwin on contemporary art, which is timely, given his bicentenary. Another spectacular feature of this part of town is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, designed by Christopher Wilkinson and influenced by Calatrava’s harp-like creations. A huge parabolic arc connected to a pedestrian walkway by eighteen cables, it has an unusual feature: it can be tilted back so the walkway is lifted while tall ships pass under. The hoist occurs every day at noon, and sometimes twice. I watched it on Sunday and found the spectacle impressive. Across the river are other postmodern buildings, and, all in all, the quays of the city make a handsome, welcoming public space. Also on the Gateshead side is the ultramodern Sage Gateshead concert hall, designed by Norman Foster, a long, rounded, flowing structure in reflective glass, containing three separate performance halls. This week the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Thomas Zehetmair, has been giving a series of four performances of 20th-century music. I’ve attended two extraordinary programs so far, the first featuring Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and the second, Stravinsky, Messiaen, John Cage, and Stockhausen. The Cage work was his notorious 4’33, which asks the performer to sit at a piano without playing anything for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I’d never heard (seen) it done, so I have no way of commenting on the relative excellence or inferiority of this rendition. Certainly it’s not true to say the point of the work is silence because after about ten seconds the spectators begin making various noises. This time there were coughs, nose-blowings, barely suppressed giggles, and whatnot. You might think the audience would have responded to programmed silence with “the sound of one hand clapping,” but, no, there was a real explosion of applause, as though to compensate for the unbearable absence of audio that preceded it. In the modern era, only Quakers and Buddhists welcome silence. For nearly all others, it is experienced as a deathlike void and must be filled. So I must be Quaker or Buddhist.

The city center, sometimes called Grainger Town, features the gorgeous Grey Street, lined with wonderfully varied neoclassical buildings as it mounts and curves up to Eldon Square, where a monument to Charles, Earl Grey, dominates. Yes, this is the Prime Minister for whom the popular bergamot-flavored tea was named. His statue stands atop a very tall fluted classical column, rather like Nelson's in Trafalgar Square. For reasons unknown to me, Newcastle didn’t much follow the vogue for Neo-Gothic architecture in the Victorian period. Instead, you get 19th-century neoclassical style, which is rather rare until the fin de siècle when many Beaux Arts masterpieces were constructed in Paris and New York.

But there are many medieval architectural survivals in Newcastle, including remains of the old city wall and the eponymous castle, first built in wood by William the Conqueror’s son and then later rebuilt in stone. In the Morden Tower part of this structure, Basil Bunting, a proud native Northumbrian, first read to the small public gathered there in 1965 his long poem Briggflatts. I was first introduced to Bunting’s poem by Jonathan Williams, who appears in this blog for March 2008, when I spoke of him on the occasion of his death. Jonathan was Bunting’s publisher in America. When I came to visit Jonathan at his summer home in the dales of Cumbria thirty years ago, he drove us up to see the Quaker meeting house at Brigflatts (that is the correct spelling, though not Bunting's). We didn’t push on to Newcastle, and I didn’t then know Briggflatts had debuted there. In 1966 it appeared in Poetry (Chicago) and launched Bunting’s reputation as a modern master.

Partly because the poem mentions the semi-legendary warrior king Eric Bloodaxe, one of the U.K.’s most important poetry publishers, located in Newcastle, took his epithet for their name. (Non-U.K. readers may or may not be familiar with Bloodaxe Press, which has a large and important number of poets in its catalogue.) Newcastle University, too, has in recent years marked out a place for itself on the poetry map by inviting leading poets like Sean O’Brien and W.N. Herbert to join their faculty. So no one should fear I will be a fish out of water up here, far from London and its cultural abundance. The truth is, I wanted to get to know the North a little better, and the process is well underway.

I have one friend in Newcastle, Paul Attinello, an American who teaches in the Musicology department at the U. of N. I mentioned staying with him here back in December, which is when I conceived the plan of coming to Northumbria for the summer. We’ve had a pleasant reunion, attending the concerts together, and I expect to see him many times during my stay, which is now begun and will continue until early September. And several London friends have promised to come up for a visit as well. Maenwhile, I've begun drafting some new work.