Cape Town – a personal view

There can be no better time to visit Cape Town than in the depths of an English winter. Heat wraps itself around you as you recover from the 12 hour flight, and you get reacquainted with blue skies and sunshine.

It was our first time in this South African hotspot. Cape Town is often voted the best city in the world to live in, but here are our own very personal impressions…..

Climbing Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge route

Table Mountain dominates the city’s skyline and psyche. On a searingly hot day, we climbed to the plateau – via the Platteklip Gorge route – rather than wait 90 minutes in the cable car queue. I’m so glad we did, as we were unsure after a recent mugging of a group on the mountain. Stay on one of the main routes and make sure there are other climbers nearby. The views from the ‘table top’ are scintillating, and in all directions. But be warned, the famous ‘table cloth’ of cloud cover can roll in at any time, envelop the summit and restrict the views.

‘Table Cloth’ clouds rolling in over Table Mountain

Spend a day touring around Cape Point, the majestic peninsula you will hopefully have seen clearly from the top of Table Mountain. We drove south via the Atlantic coast on the west, stopping at glitzy Camps Bay and the more authentic fishing port of Hout Bay. Then embrace the spectacular Chapmans Peak drive (‘Chappies‘) and enter the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, where the natural draw is the lighthouse and Cape Point itself, the most southwestern point in Africa.

Head back along the eastern side of the peninsula, where the warmer waters of False Bay invite sharks to swim with you. Stop at any of Simon’s Town, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay and Muizenberg along the way for refreshments and a slice of Cape history, but we preferred the tranquil unspoiled beauty of Buffels Bay, where a pair of ostriches grazed on the grassy bank near the beach, before wandering along the sand like an old married couple.

An ostrich on Buffels Bay, near Cape Point, looking for his mate

On the other side of Table Mountain, sports fans can make a pilgrimage to the affluent, leafy suburb of Newlands – home of arguably the most beautifully situated cricket and rugby grounds in the world – before heading for a wine-tasting session and lunch in Constantia, another elegant suburb and home to the oldest vineyards in the Cape, nestling in the foothills of Table Mountain. We enjoyed an educational viticultural session at Groot Constantia, before an excellent lunch at Klein Constantia.

You’re never far from wine in the Cape

Also on that eastern side of the mountain, away from ‘downtown’ Cape Town, don’t miss the world-class Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. We spent a few hours here on a glorious Sunday evening, not just embracing nature but also listening to a vibrant piece of Africa. Throughout the summer, the Gardens host Sunset Concerts. We saw The Soil, an internationally renowned a capella trio, hailing from Soweto and belting out cool, quintessentially African rhythms which had the huge crowd swaying in unison.

Back in the city, the V&A Waterfront is a tourist magnet. The original Victorian harbour has been imaginatively regenerated, and pulses with life from its many waterside restaurants, shopping malls and watering holes, all within sight of the iconic Table Mountain. The 19th century buildings have been retained, and it’s good to see that this focal point still also remains an active port.

Table Mountain from the regenerated V&A Waterfront

The Robben Island tours leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the Waterfront. We’re glad we explored this infamous island. The tour of the prison by an ex political prisoner was humbling, and to see the garden where Nelson Mandela hid the manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom was similarly a moment for introspection.

Robben Island tour with an ex political prisoner

Do not miss the new Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa), in the spectacular Silo building, near the V&A Waterfront. Even if you’re not an art lover, you can’t help but be impressed by the building, and by its internal space and light, all designed by the renowned Thomas Heatherwick. But do make time to explore the several floors of imaginative art installations from around this enigmatic continent.

Zeitz MOCAA artwork

For other cultural activities in Cape Town, check out what’s on the city’s theatres. Its most famous son of the stage is Athol Fugard, a playwright best known for his political plays opposing the heinous system of apartheid. He has an eponymous theatre in Cape Town’s infamous District 6, but we went to an altogether lower key experience, at the Alexander bar, cafe and theatre. We saw a one-man performance of The Deficit, a play about a young man trying to graduate but being held back by the system, and by history. Politics and apartheid are seemingly never far away in Cape Town and South Africa, even now.

Probably our most memorable evening though was dinner at Mzansi in the Langa township, a few miles outside the city centre. We were worried that it might be a little patronising to the local community, but online reviews persuaded us to go. Nomonde Siyaka – ‘call me Mama’ – is the driving force behind the whole enterprise, and soon puts you at ease…..’this is not a restaurant, this is my home’. She started the business in 2008, initially as a jazz club, and struggled to make the restaurant side work until a group of exchange students helped her out with social media promotion in 2015. Now Mzansi’s is rated #1 on Trip Advisor out of more than 2,000 restaurants in Cape Town.

An evening at Mzansi’s is an introduction to Xhosa culture, history and language…including the impossible-to-replicate clicking sounds in conversation! The music performed in such an intimate space was outstanding, both from a 6-piece traditional Marimba band and from very young guitarists and singers. The food is served buffet-style, comprises largely vegetarian dishes, all delicious, traditional and sourced locally. And them Mama will tell you the story of her life, a stark reminder of how challenging life remains for most South Africans but how the success of Mzansi’s has improved the immediate prospects of those in the community who contribute to this remarkable venture. whether through growing vegetables, helping in the kitchen, parking cars, providing security or playing music.

Marimba band at Mzansi

The guests that night came from Brazil, France, Poland and England. We had taken a taxi to Langa, but hitched a ride back to town with a couple of French guys. They took a wrong turn and we ended in a different part of the township, late at night and with people spilling out into the middle of the narrow streets. It was unsettling.

And that, I’m afraid, is the most lasting impression of our short time in Cape Town: it is a city blessed by nature, with a stunning marriage of ocean, mountain and climate, but damaged by man. Apartheid may be over, but inequality certainly isn’t. And how can a city where you need security guards to accompany you after dark, where properties need locked gates, alarms and barbed wire, and where you have to think twice about walking up its iconic mountain, really be thought of as the best city of the world in which to live?

Book review – Lullaby by Leila Slimani

This is a shocking tale, beautifully told. And the scarcely believable denouement is laid bare on the first page:

‘The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived….’

This is no whodunnit either. Louise, the children’s nanny, killed her charges. But the background to why is told sensitively and in almost a staccato literary style, with short sentences and chapters, in what is more a novella than a full-blown novel.

Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer and her husband Paul, an ambitious music producer, seemingly have it all. But when Myriam decides to go back to work after having their second child, they need a nanny.

At first Louise seems too good to be true, quickly making herself indispensable to the family. But with deft writing, unpeeling Louise’s troubled past and gradually changing the dynamics between the family and their needy nanny, the author prepares the ground for the unthinkable conclusion.

In such a short book, it’s remarkable that Leila Slimani has managed to raise so many important issues ‘de nos jours’, in addition to the main sad story – society’s attitudes to motherhood; social deprivation; domestic violence; mental health problems; the immigrant underclass; and more.

Translated by Sam Taylor from the original French – entitled ‘Chanson Douce’ – it’s no surprise that this book won France’s most prestigious literary Prix Goncourt in 2016.

The novel is firmly based in Paris, with a poignant contrast drawn between the luxurious arondissement where Myriam and Paul live, and the remote slum banlieu where Louise rents a run-down apartment. But it is the dark, unsettling story of how a nanny comes to murder her charges that will linger in the mind long after you’ve turned the final page.

Bravo Leila Slimani.

Movie review – The Shape of Water

Would you walk into a restaurant, not knowing if you were going to be eating a juicy steak, Bombay Duck or monkey’s brains?

Or would you risk going to the airport, unsure if you’re flying to a beach, a forest or to the Antarctic?

No? Thought not. But that’s sort of what happens at Odeon’s Screen Unseen presentations. As Forrest Gump’s Mom told him: ‘life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.’

We’ve seen some cracking films at this pot-luck movie-fest….but we’ve also seen some dogs. And that’s the point: you’ll most likely see something you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to watch, and isn’t that worth the risk….even if you don’t find Oscar gold every time?

On Monday night in Guildford, many of the audience whooped with relief and happiness when the credits revealed The Shape of Water. Gill and I looked dumbly at each other in the half-light.

And the initial omens weren’t good. After 15 minutes, we couldn’t really tell if we were watching a sci-fi movie, a black comedy, a fantasy, a romance or a thriller.

As it turns out, The Shape of Water is all of those genres – and more – and what a cinematic treat it turns out to be.

At a top secret research facility in Baltimore in the late 1950s, mute, lonely and sexually frustrated cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) forms a left-field relationship with a creature from the deep, being abused in captivity by violent security agent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone

The unlikely plot evolves to include boiled eggs, Russian spies, the Space Race with the US, Elisa’s next door neighbour Giles – a failing artist and closet gay man – and Zelda, Elisa’s cleaning colleague and interpreter at work.

You just have to suspend your disbelief and revel in the movie magic of a love story beautifully told, with sensitivity, warmth and unbridled imagination. And just try to forget that the last time you saw Sally Hawkins she was Mrs Brown in Paddington 2.

Image courtesy of Celebzz

So go on…..get up off the couch on the first Monday in February and take a cinematic leap of faith with Odeon’s Screen Unseen.

 

 

Book review – My Absolute Darling

The word “masterpiece” has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.’

This fulsome praise is wrapped around the cover of Gabriel Tallent‘s debut novel, and comes from the mouth of no less a literary giant than Stephen King. I’m not sure I can be quite as unequivocal, but there can be no doubt that My Absolute Darling is a dazzling work of fiction, bleak, shocking and portraying a depth of character that is both rare and unsettling.

Turtle Alveston is just 14, friendless and almost feral, living in woods on the wild northern California coast with her abusive father Martin. The house is filled with guns, mould, insects and latent violence. Turtle is regularly raped by Martin, but their unhealthy relationship is nevertheless rooted in a twisted form of love.

The story may be a hard one to read but the poetic lyricism of Tallent’s narrative is spellbinding:

He lays her down, fingertips dimpling her thighs, her ribs opening and closing, each swale shadowed, each ridge immaculate white. She thinks do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking, this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curved bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says. “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”

The unholy equilibrium of their relationship is unbalanced by Turtle happening across a couple of boys from school – Jacob and Brett – and by Martin returning home with an even younger lost soul, Cayenne, whom Martin collected in dubious circumstances at a gas station.

There is a child on the porch, face in her hands, black hair in tangles, matchstick arms tiger-striped with bruises. The girl is nine or ten, maybe seventy pounds. When Martin gets out the truck, the girl looks up and runs to him. He picks her up by the armpits and swings her round, laughing. Then, with his arm around her shoulders, he walks her back to Turtle. 

Kibble,” he says, “this is Cayenne.”

The inevitably violent denouement is dripping with irony. Turtle’s affinity with nature, mental strength and familiarity with guns are inherited from Martin, but they might just ensure her survival.

I hope Hollywood is brave enough to transfer this challenging story to the big screen, in these sexually sensitive times, and I can’t wait to see what Gabriel Tallent chooses to write about in his second novel.

Image courtesy of The Times

 

Crowdfunding – a success story

I first dipped my tentative unpensioned toe in the murky shark-infested waters of crowdfunding a couple of years ago.

I wrote then that I was under no illusions about the inherent risks in this relatively new investment mechanism, technology enabling investors to support early-stage businesses and potentially earn greater returns than elsewhere, in the new low-interest and low-return environment.

I subsequently wrote about the need for the crowdfunding platforms to make sure sufficient due diligence was being undertaken on businesses and entrepreneurs, before being listed as investment opportunities. And how they should be more transparent about the performance of each business after the crowd had invested.

Rob Murray Brown posts far more incisively and frequently than I do about the failures of the crowdfunding platforms – particularly CrowdCube, one of the largest – on his hard-hitting blog The Truth About Equity Crowdfunding.

One of my own investments through CrowdCube two years ago was in a bond – so a debt instrument, rather than equity – to help finance the growth of Daisy Green cafes across London. For my support, I would receive 11% interest pa (paid twice a year), with a repayment date of 2019. Other benefits included free coffee for a while, and invitations to launch parties at new cafes.

In a surprise email last week, the founder said that the business had made such good progress that they had refinanced the bondholder debt with ‘a leading UK bank.‘ This significant new debt facility ‘will allow us to continue to expand Daisy Green throughout London.’

My latest interest payment and original bond investment are to be repaid in full immediately.

Rob Murray Brown takes a somewhat jaundiced view that bondholders should somehow feel disappointed:.

I don’t. I say hoorah for Daisy Green. I have received 11% on my money for 2 years. I’m going to get my investment back in full. I’ve enjoyed some outstanding coffee. I was a lender, and not an equity investor.

There were early repayment terms – without penalty – in the documentation. Perhaps they could have been more transparent, but I applaud Daisy Green for their progress and if they can refinance at less than 11%, and accelerate growth, they would be crazy not to.

The founder indicates that there may be the opportunity for bondholders to ‘get involved‘ in the next stage of Daisy Green’s story. We shall see what form that might take. But in the meantime, let’s celebrate this success for a hard-working entrepreneur and her team, and for crowdfunding.

Image courtesy of Business Funding Show

Theatre review – White Christmas

White Christmas  – review for  Essential Surrey website.

Review: White Christmas by the Runnymede Drama Group

White Christmas is being performed by the Runnymede Drama Group at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre in Woking until December 9

White Christmas - RDG (Dec17).JPG

White Christmas is a wonderfully festive feel-good musical, up there with movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Love Actually to guarantee sending you home with an elfy spring in the step, and a song in even the most Scrooge-like heart.

Irving Berlin wrote the iconic song in 1940, and Bing Crosby’s recording of it in 1941 has since sold over 100 million copies. But it was the 1942 film Holiday Inn, starring Bing and Fred Astaire, which has probably done most to immortalise the music, within a heart-warming story.

This production of the musical version of White Christmas is performed by the Runnymede Drama Group, an amateur company but with a rich thespian heritage and renowned as one of the best am-dram groups in the country.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1944. American soldiers from the 151st Division are putting on a Christmas show, to rally the troops on the Western Front. Captain Bob Wallace and Private Phil Davis are natural performers, and close friends. The Division’s commanding officer, General Henry Waverley, is a stickler for discipline but with a heart, and a leg injury that is forcing him to return home. In his Christmas message, he prays for peace and wonders what life will be like in 10 years time…

Fast forward to 1954….Bob and Phil are stars of stage and screen, even appearing on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show. Phil fraternises with the showgirls, but Bob is more traditional and is drawn to Betty Haynes, one of the dancing and singing Haynes Sisters, when Phil engineers a visit to a club where the girls are performing.

The action migrates to Vermont – although Bob thinks he’s going to Florida for the Christmas holidays – where they are all staying at a struggling Inn owned by their old General, and where there is an unseasonal heat wave.

Each episode of the story is brought to animated life by song and dance, every member of the cast throwing themselves into the joyous spirit of the occasion. Count Your Blessings (instead of sheep!) is the advice given by Bob to Susan, the General’s grand-daughter; Let me Sing and I’m Happy is belted out beautifully by Martha, the Inn’s concierge and self-confessed busybody; Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me is the plaintive cry from Betty, back in New York and performing solo after she misjudges Bob.

But the real show-stopper is I Love A Piano, Phil and Betty’s sister Judy opening the second half in a blaze of tap-dancing glory with the rest of the troupe, piano keys on their lapels and fire in their shoes.

Leave your cynicism at the door and embrace this joyous tale of optimism and festive cheer. Come the final curtain, all the loose ends are neatly tied up with a large red Christmas bow and – spoiler alert – it even starts snowing on Christmas Eve, by which time the audience is singing along with the cast and good old Bing.

It would be wrong to call out any single member of this talented group. The whole production – from cast, dancers, set designers, the entire production team and to the excellent 11-strong band, whimsically visible in a retro-style recording booth – exudes professionalism and passion.

Congratulations and thanks to the Runnymede Drama Group for banishing any bah humbug thoughts. Let the festive period begin…

Theatre review – Nocturne – The Romantic Life of Frederic Chopin

What an original concept. Lucy Parham has scripted this engaging performance, fusing music and words as deftly as Rick Stein marries food and travel.

Lucy provides the magical music, some of the favourite piano concertos of Frédéric Chopin , as a dazzling soundtrack to the story of the composer’s romantic life.

Image courtesy of Classic FM

Esteemed thespians Alex Jennings and Patricia Hodge speak the words, the core of which is the outwardly surprising love affair between the delicate genius of young Chopin, newly arrived in Paris from Warsaw in 1831, and George Sand, the slightly older and sexually voracious literary sensation.

Through letters to each other, and occasionally from friends, we follow the lovers from Paris to a disastrous winter in Majorca, where Frédéric is plagued by a consumptive cough, on to Barcelona and back to France, where they at their happiest in Nantes.

But the affair is fated to end in disaster.

Frédéric dies in Paris, in relative poverty and at the tender age of 39, his short life dominated by ill health and melancholy, reflected in many of the pieces played so beautifully by Ms Parham.

This was a charming – and innovative – performance, but I must confess that I found myself more engaged by the words than by the music. And by Alex Jennings’ sensitive acting of his script more than by Patricia Hodge’s sometimes stuttering recital of hers.

Image courtesy of Alisa Connan

But in a nice personal squaring of the circle, this all gave some touching context to my stumbling across the charming hidden Musée de la Vie Romantique a few years ago, the home of Dutch artist Ary Scheffer in a cobbled back street of Montmartre, where the lovers would meet at his Friday salon.

Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.

 

Blue Sardinia – the authentic taste of this unique island

I love my new career.

Don’t get me wrong….nothing can ever replace the raw excitement of commuting to London every day, compiling a set of statutory accounts, or reducing aged debtors by a couple of days. But travel writing, and all the eating, drinking and exploring new frontiers that naturally follow, come a pretty close second to all that bean-counting and high finance.

Image courtesy of Pexels

Throw books into the new mix and that might just clinch the deal….

Thanks to my relationships with the lovely people at TripFiction and Silver Travel Advisor I went to bellissimo Sardinia in the summer. My first brief was to ‘stalk’ author Rosanna Ley, following in the footsteps of her own research and the characters in her novel, The Little Theatre by the Sea.

Here are some of the pieces I wrote for TripFiction:

I also wrote articles for Silver Travel Advisor, on both the area and – as Literary Editor of the Silver Travel Book Club – on Rosanna’s book:

The third prong in my Sardinian fork was – with my friend and colleague Mark Melling and our Great Escapations venture – to create captivating content and short films for Sardatur Holidays, a Silver Travel Advisor partner who kindly sponsored our time in Sardinia.

Gianni Bonuglia, Sardatur’s Managing Director, must have liked what we created because he has kindly asked us to make a new short film for an event he us hosting in London for travel agents and journalists.

But what theme should we focus on, when Sardinia has so many jewels in its glorious crown?

Food would certainly be one. Step forward Blue Sardinia restaurant, located close to us in Guildford and passionate about creating authentic Sardinian food for the good people of Surrey.

A couple of phone calls introduced Great Escapations and what we were looking to create for Sardatur, and Cinzia – one of Blue Sardinia’s founders and a brilliant chef – graciously and generously offered to let us film in the restaurant, as she cooked some pukka Sardinian dishes.

And I mean authentic…..

  • first up, Sardinian gnochetti (traditional Malloreddus pasta) Campidanese with sausage ragout.  Cinzia heats the pan, adds oil and garlic with that chef-like insouciance, in goes the fennel seeds and sausage, together with salt, torn basil leaves, red wine, fresh tomato sauce and a little bit of stock. Fresh pasta cooks for just 2 or 3 minutes, is drained and combined with the sauce, topped with freshly grated pecorino cheese – before being filmed by a creative cameraman and eaten by a greedy writer. Buonissimo, Cinzia!

  • next up, black tagliolini with clams & bottarga fish roe. The freshly made pasta dough – the Sardo way, with flour and semolina – is made jet black by adding squid ink, and a little water. For the sauce, Cinzia marries clams, wine, chopped parsley, more wine, chopped cherry tomatoes and some salt. The fresh pasta is again cooked for just a couple of minutes, before being crowned with the clam sauce and some delicately chopped bottarga fish roe, Sardinia’s caviar. Wow!

Jonathan, sommelier at Blue Sardinia and one of Cinzia’s 6 brothers, poured outstanding Sardinian wines to accompany these dishes – a classic red Cannonau  Sardiglia with the sausage ragout, and a delicious Vermentino di Gallura white with the clams & bottarga

See, I told you it was a tough gig.

Grazie mille, Cinzia, Jonathan and the whole team at Blue Sardinia. Looking forward to eating more of your superb Sardinian cooking, and I’ll send you a link to the final film for the Sardatur Holidays event very soon.

And Cinzia even taught me a useful Italian idiom:

anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte – literally ‘even the eyes want their share’ but really you eat with your eyesQuant’è vero!

We’ll be in touch. Pronto.

Jersey reflections

I’ve only been to Jersey once before. That was more than 50 years ago, when Dad was close to accepting a job  on this charming Channel Island. Our lives could all have been so different….

This was definitely Gill’s first visit to Jersey, so close to Gatwick airport that we had barely buckled up our seat belts before we were on our way down again.

We were here for a 4-night Secret Escapes break, at a bargain price but packed full with luxury. Here are just a few reflections of a fun and interesting few days.

Coastlines:

Wide sandy beaches seem to encircle the island, with the exception of the more rugged north coast. A nice contrast, although one of the greatest tidal ranges in the world can catch you out, wherever you are on the island. We’re talking close to 40 feet….be warned!

Food:

This turned out to be a real foodie trip. We were staying at Longueville Manor, Jersey’s premier hotel and also top-rated restaurant, thanks largely to long-serving and renowned chef Andrew Baird.

The Secret Escapes deal included two dinners at the hotel, one table d’hôte, the other à la carte. Both were outstanding, as were the gargantuan but well-balanced breakfasts on all four mornings. Stand-out dishes? Gill’s seafood platter, fresh seafood swimming off the vast plate into her lap. And a beef dish I had, the meat meltingly soft and served with an unctuous sauce that should probably be illegal.

We never made it as far as the cheese course, served on a trolley designed by master carpenter Remi Couriard from 180 year-old French oak, and groaning with dozens of pungent cheeses in various stages of evolution.

Walks:

There’s no better way to explore this compact island than on foot.

On our first full day, we set off from the hotel on a bright November morning, heading south towards the beach of St Clement, just east of St Helier. The extreme tide had well and truly ebbed, peeling back an interesting beachscape of hard-ridged sand, lunar-looking rocks and brightly coloured buoys, fastened by rusting metal rings and waiting patiently for the water to return.

10 miles and several hours later, we had explored the south-east corner of the island, past Le Hocq to Grouville, before heading north to the sheltered harbour of Gorey, watched over by historic and protective Mont Orgueil Castle.

The following day we enjoyed a shorter, and very different, walk. The central north coast is more rugged and quieter than the south, and the coastal path zig-zags high above the sea. We followed it as far as Devil’s Hole – a blow-hole eroded into the rocks and steeped in island myth after the shipwreck of a French boat in 1851 – before heading inland, through quiet villages and farmland, home of Jersey cows and Royal spuds.

Jersey Zoo:

We were reluctant to visit Jersey Zoo, despite encouragement from friends and positive reviews from everyone online. Wild animals aren’t meant to be caged, are they?

But we’re very glad we went, because this is much more a conservation project than a traditional zoo, inspired by the legendary Gerald Durrell more than 50 years ago.

It focuses on endangered species from around the world – go to the Education Centre to enjoy some excellent films about certain species and projects, understand the challenges involved and then see some of these well-fed and much-loved animals in environments that are as natural as possible in the circumstances.

Overall impressions:

  • the island has a gentle – and genteel – feel about it, with an overall sense of affluence and insulation. It exudes an aura of peace, and relative lack of stress
  • someone told us the population of Jersey has increased by 50% – from 70,000 to 105,000 – in the last 20 years or so. Away from St Helier and the more developed south, the island still seemed quiet and empty to us, but hopefully that rate of population growth doesn’t damage Jersey’s intrinsic charm and equilibrium
  • we couldn’t fail to notice the significant proportion of foreign voices in and around St Helier, with a strong presence of Portuguese and Poles working in the hospitality industry. Where does that leave young Jersey natives, when agriculture is under pressure and if they’re not excited by financial services, I wonder….

Thanks, Secret Escapes and Longueville Manor for a very enjoyable – and great value – trip to Jersey. I have a feeling we’ll be back before another 50 years have passed….

Theatre review – The Real Thing

The Real Thing – review for Essential Surrey website.

A revival of Tom Stoppard’s painfully witty play about love and infidelity is being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford until Saturday 11 November

Mr. Ingram was my English teacher in the mid-1970s. He instilled in me a love of English language and literature that has endured, and for which I am constantly grateful. He introduced me to Tom Stoppard for old-fashioned ‘O’ & ‘A’ Levels, and – from hazy, distant memory – we studied ‘Jumpers’ and ‘Travesties’, both terribly clever, wordy works from the wunderkind playwright who was just hitting his considerably long stride.

By the time Stoppard wrote ‘The Real Thing’ in 1982, I was distracted by Real Life so it was a joy to see this play for the first time this week, in a revival performance that remains faithful to its period of creation.

Max is brooding and drinking in his minimalist urban lounge, building a house of cards that collapses when his actor wife Charlotte returns from a trip ‘abroad.’ After some wickedly witty wordplay, Max tells Charlotte that he has found her passport in the bedroom. She refuses to respond to Max’s accusations of infidelity, and leaves him.

It is only in the second scene that we come to understand that the first was the performance of a play, written by Henry, a renowned playwright who is himself married to Charlotte. In this real world, where life and art are often hard to distinguish, Henry is in love with Annie – Max’s wife and another actor, but also a nascent political activist – and they’re having an affair.

Fast forward two years: Max discovered Annie’s infidelity, and she and Henry have been married for a while. But cracks are beginning to show….

There are multiple themes in this intellectually challenging play. One is words. Writers and words. In a parallel thread, Annie has asked for Henry’s opinion on a play written by Brodie, a former soldier who has been imprisoned for making a misguided political gesture, and whose cause Annie has taken up.

I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead. Henry’s cricket bat analogy to compare his writing with Brodie’s is a huge hit, smashed over the literary boundary.

But the main theme of the play is love. Can The Real Thing survive betrayal and imbalance, infidelity and uncertainty?

‘I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn’t seem much different from not loving.’

Stoppard’s inspiration for The Real Thing came from being ‘intrigued by the playful thought of writing something in which the first scene turns out to have been written by a character in the second scene.’ Otherwise the play has less theatrical artifice than most of his others, and relies more on raw emotion oozing from the actors, as they bring the playwright’s dazzling wordplay to life.

Laurence Fox plays Henry in this emotionally charged revival, directed by Stephen Unwin. He acts with less outward exuberance than the rest of the excellent cast, but perhaps that is just his interpretation of a man constantly torn between his art, life and love.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

And in the final twist of the play-within-a-play theme and life imitating art, it’s interesting to reflect that Stoppard had a long affair with Felicity Kendall, after she acted in the first performance of The Real Thing in 1982.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

But it didn’t endure. Unlike my love of English. I wonder if Mr. Ingram is still alive….

Not dead yet! Make the most of your post-work years