Watling Street

Book Review: Watling Street, by John Higgs
Another psychogeographical ramble, this book follows the course of Watling Street from Dover to Holyhead. Like many books of this genre, there’s a hint of melancholia, as even when peering into the past and finding it grim, it comes with an implied suggestion that we’re missing our heritage and that somehow things must have been better in The Olden Days. Inter alia we learn that the route existed for thousands of years before the Romans, though it is named after a warlord from the Dark Ages; about the connection between Dickens and Rod Hull; the two routes taken through London, before and since the Romans; highwaymen (and women), public schools, ball games, and druids. Published in 2017 and obviously researched beforehand, it tentatively mentions Brexit but sticks to simple facts on leaving the EU rather than expressing any opinions about it. I found the chapter on Bletchley Park worthy but slightly misunderstanding of the Bombes. Nevertheless, I did learn the origin of the phrase “money for old rope” and three possible reasons why James Bond has the codename 007; and Higgs persistently slips in Doctor Who references at various locations, appropriately enough for a book that travels in space and time.

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The Prague Sonata

Book Review: The Prague Sonata, by Bradford Morrow
I try to read something musical during the Proms season, but this remained hidden on my bookshelf at a critical moment and it got missed until after the end of the season. In any case, I wasn’t really sure what to expect: I feared disappointment.

Meta Taverner is a musicologist working in New York; a career as a concert pianist was cut short by an injury. A friend telephones her shortly after her thirtieth birthday, giving her the name and address of an elderly lady and encouraging her to make a visit. The lady, a Czech immigrant, shows her what appears to be an eighteenth century manuscript, the middle movement of a piano sonata, and tells her the story of how it came to be separated from its companion movements during World War II. Meta is intrigued by the music, and entrusted with the manuscript and the quest to reunite the work. The novel proceeds to Prague, where she makes friends and enemies, discovers old stories, rivalries and multiple layers of history, before ultimately concluding back in America.

The story is well told and carries enough authenticity in the way it references composers, musical and research techniques, and also for the way it paints Czech and Slovak history through the twentieth century. Confusingly but necessarily, the story is spliced together from several timelines, which trace back to the mid-nineteenth century. It felt a bit long-winded at times, and one episode in the middle did feel rather predictable, but on the whole, I enjoyed it.

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Churchillian and Orwellian

Book Review: Churchill and Orwell – The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E Ricks
This was a random selection from the work book sale, but the time I chose to read it was hardly random, as one Churchill fan had recently ascended to the Prime Ministership in a time of national crisis. Unlike his predecessor, this crisis was self-inflicted, and the current incumbent shut down Parliament in an Orwellian attempt to silence debate and dissent.

There is no doubt that Churchill was the right leader at the right time, but had history been different, the book acknowledges he would have been little more than a footnote in history, an entertaining writer as an adventurer, journalist and historian in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For Orwell, too, the start was not especially promising, but his bit-part in the Spanish Civil War gave him the energy to write about freedom and totalitarianism, in any form. Animal Farm struggled to find a publisher in the wake of the Second World War, but it sold out immediately.

Churchill’s life seems to have more ups and downs, from escapades in South Africa in the Boer War, through mixed political fortunes in the First World War, the wilderness of the 1930s, triumph in the Second World War, and sharp decline thereafter. Our folk memories are highly selective and cover only a narrow segment of his life. Orwell, on the other hand, suffers more from the downs: an indifferent if humanising career as a Police Officer in colonial Burma, a lucky escape with a neck wound in the Spanish Civil War, a brush with the divisions and purges of communism, a long period of declining health. The successes of Animal Farm and 1984 were immediate, but late – very late – in his career.

The two never met, but Ricks’s joint biography carefully joins the threads of their lives together. This isn’t a detailed history of either man, but it isn’t superficial, either. Both names have become adjectives, but in different senses.

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V for Victory

We’ve been lucky in recent months with ballots for BBC radio recordings, having previously gone to watch The News Quiz being recorded on the night of the European elections, and an episode of Dead Ringers a month later. On Thursday evening we were again in the BBC Radio Theatre for a recording of The News Quiz.

It’s been another interesting week, but apart from Brexit, proroguing, and the Speaker standing down, there have been other news stories, including a BA strike and a crime-fighting seal. Francis Wheen, Susan Calman, Felicity Ward and Glenn Moore formed the panel, with guest host Patrick Kielty. Somewhere on a BBC cutting room floor, there exists a recording of news reader Susan Rae instructing Kielty to “tell them the scrotum joke”.

On Friday I headed to my final Prom of the season. The queuing in the morning was a bit chaotic; as it was the penultimate concert, there were already people queueing for the Last Night, and it took longer than usual to get the queueing ticket. Things had sorted themselves out when I returned in the evening, for a Beethoven Night. I found myself five or six rows back.

The NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Andrew Manze began with Handel, however; the Music for the Royal Fireworks. It struck me that I am so used to hearing this kind of music on period instruments, that this performance of a modern symphony orchestra sounded unusual, and perhaps lacked some of the raw edge I had come to expect. But the next piece, Beethoven’s Ah! perfido, sung by Elizabeth Watts, sounded right, even though it also must have been performed originally with a smaller orchestra. The final piece of the first half was a Bach-Elgar orchestration, the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor BWV537. It seemed to start a little slowly, but built up as it went on.

The second half was an all-Beethoven affair, beginning with the overture to Fidelio and followed by another aria, Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern. The programme finished with the Symphony No. 5. Traditionally, the ninth was played at the penultimate concert of the season, but that was set aside some years ago. Of course, the fifth is one of the pieces that everyone recognises and it’s difficult to say anything distinctive. Of course, in the context of Brexit, everything must be viewed through the lens of the Second World War, in which the four note opening motif was taken by the Allies as representing the Morse code letter V. It was a good performance; the third movement always triggers a memory of the film of Howards End, where it features in a rainy scene outside Oxford Town Hall; and the transition to the fourth movement, bursting into C Major, surely records what “sunlit uplands” are supposed to look like. There was a Handel encore, but I couldn’t tell exactly what it was.

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Wagner Night

People were surprised by the short queue on Monday morning, but it was not short enough for me to be on the rail; I was in the second row of the arena, which had filled out by the time the concert started.

In the early years of the Proms, Monday was often “Wagner Night”, and therefore elements of this concert, given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Marc Albrecht, were in keeping with tradition. The first half took the slightly tangential theme of “forest”, beginning with the overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz, with light and dark mood swings. We moved on to the first Wagner of the evening, with the Forest Murmurs from Siegfried. Sometimes being directly in front of the cellos can hamper the sound of the rest of the orchestra; on this occasion, it allowed for extra clarity. The final piece of the first half was a novelty to me, Franck’s Le chasseur maudit. Again with some quite dark moments, this was more overtly a more modern piece. I felt I heard inspiration for later works in it, such as the “Elmira” theme from the slow movement of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony, and Eric Coates’s The Three Elizabeths.

The second half was all Wagner, pure and simple, with excerpts from Götterdämmerung, some sung by soprano Christine Goerke and tenor Stephen Gould. The four excerpts were woven together without pauses, which was a little disorienting. The funeral march was, of course, splendid. The evening seemed an appropriate way to mark the turmoil of the past few weeks, and the shutdown of Parliament later that evening.

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A week is a long time in politics

So said Harold Wilson, and on the basis of this week, it was an understatement. A march in Reading was planned for Saturday, notionally against prorogation, though that seems such a long time ago now. In any case, I figure it’s important to keep up the momentum (with a small m) to show that many people are not happy with what’s going on. I counted about 40 people as we arrived, but numbers quickly swelled and must have been in the hundreds by the time we set off. None of this waiting for over an hour that you get in London, though.

Passing along Broad Street, we ended by the Town Hall, where a number of speakers gave speeches. The more polished were from political leaders such as Lib Dem PPC Imogen Shepherd DuBey, Reading East MP Matt Rodda, and Bracknell’s new Lib Dem MP Dr Phillip Lee, but speakers from other groups such as Berkshire for Europe, the Greens and the Women’s Equality Party were every bit as moving.

Only a fool would predict what happens next. For the time being, the Rebel Alliance is holding, but it’s fragile. A General Election seems inevitable, without the prospect of it solving very much at all.

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The Celtic Fringe

Book Review: The Encircling Sea, by Adrian Goldsworthy
It’s almost a year since I read Vindolanda, the first in this series. Whilst there are a few repetitions or flashbacks to the previous novel, the next in the series does nevertheless stand on its own, with Ferox and Vindex tackling a kidnapping that has taken them to the far north. On their return to Vindolanda, they find the Romans have been invited to Hibernia (Ireland), by one of the candidates for the process of selecting a Great King. Of course, things do not quite go according to plan. Northern tribes are raiding the area, taking cattle and setting fire to local settlements; and they seem particularly interested in one particular Roman family.

Again, I found it interesting to read of the fluctuating alliances between tribes or groups, seeming to swap sides quite readily. I did find it a bit surprising that more wasn’t made of the Romans’ reluctance to set sail, as they navigate first the Irish Sea and later up to the Western Isles of present day Scotland, though even the “Roman” characters come from various parts of the Empire, including of course Britain. On the downside, somehow the kidnapping of (supposedly) important people felt a bit reminiscent of the earlier novel, and the battles later in the novel were at times confusing. For those for whom life was not short, it apparently was nasty, brutish, and repetitive. Again, the author offers historical notes at the end of the book, with the basic plot inspired by the revolt of the Usipi documented by Tacitus.

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