Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

Language surrounds us, defines who, what and where we are.
Language has developed beyond a mere capacity for communication of information to providing a vast array social and cultural functions. The idea that a certain symbol has a defined meaning enables language to be a written and not solely a verbal communication. Our language has developed so that we quite often don’t mean exactly what we say but use similes, hyperboles and figures of speech to describe what we may mean in a non-literal fashion.

How we would communicate with aliens if we did ever find them has long been a subject of debate, perhaps not as esoteric as might be thought. In the 17th century before the invention of the radio schemes for drawing giant triangles in the Siberian tundra or by setting light to channels dug into the Sahara to create different shapes every night. With the advent of the radio a handful of messages, based on mathematical and scientific symbols have been sent to different star systems over the past 36 years. Although the first one won’t reach it’s destination until 2022 and the last one will arrive in approx 25,000 years.

For any of these communications to be successful there will need to be a basic agreement on what language is. In Embassytown our human protagonists are dealing with a species that have a very different idea about what language is and how it works. They speak with two voices at once and they are only able to communicate with the ambassador ‘twins’ who able to think and talk as one. Any deviation they either can’t hear or sends them crazy. There is also an inability to lie, even to the extent that speaking metaphorically is a near impossibility. So they have to create the metaphor in reality before they can speak it. Having established this strange world and the weird interactions the story leads to the arrival of a new type of ambassador, who both challenge the established order. As the world falls apart and decays the role of language becomes key to the battle for liberation and a new way of speaking.

I was given a short time to review this book but I raced through it voraciously, struck at every turn by the fantastic mastery of language and the inventiveness of new words. At times I was tempted to reach for a dictionary to find out whether the word was truly new or just new to me, the strength of the imagined world seeming totally plausible. As inventive and intriguing as Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, I was hooked to the last sentence.

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Oh my, I am still sighing nearly 24 hours later. Lovely, pretty boys singing so beautifully in a half restored building. Paying carefully attention to the witty score with it’s parallels to the government coalition of today the all-male cast provided joy, mirth and the occassional tear from beginning to end. Like their version of Pirates of Penzance there was no drag,  no high-campery or screeching falsettos, just fairies seducing peers in the house of lords. The costumes reflected the stripped back nature of the hall and all the cast protrayed great feeling with the smallest gestures and facial ticks. I want to watch it another 14 times, so I can spend time following each individual actor. They all had some wonderful moments

And the venue is just perfect, if you’ve never been to the oldest musical hall, then it’s worth it just for that. Go to http://www.wiltons.org.uk/ for more.

There’s nothing else to say, except go see it (you’ve got until 7th May, for a wonderous evening that will have you smiling inside for the next week.

I just wonder, given the gender imbalance in my musical theatre group, whether an all-female Gilbert and Sullivan show could deliver the goods.

Iolanthe, Wilton’s Music Hall, April 1st to May 7th

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This show made me want to go and read, a lot, which is maybe why I’ve delayed writing up this review. Alongside Emily Dickenson’s poems, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein I yearned to pick up another book that had always caught my interest but never quite got around to picking it up. Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad was published in 2008 looks  biographically at individual women’s and so explores mental illness not through their diagnoses but through a complete survey of the individuals and the societies that surround them.

Both Barefaced Theatre’s play and Mad, Bad and Sad pose awkward questions; Why do women seem to be more prone to mental illness than men? Is this caused by something innate? Or by ‘female’ life events like childbirth and menopause? Or because of the way we have viewed and treated women for centuries? Whilst Mad Women in the Attic focuses on historical periods these questions should still concern us today. Appignanesi  quotes a 2004 study in which girls’ suicide attempts in the UK outnumber boys’ by nine to one. We may have moved beyond 19th-century practice of observing and cataloguing ‘female hysteria’, but we have not lessened the incidence of mental illness in women.

Taking these four writers in context enabled the company to explore the women behind the writing and how their mental states influenced their work and in turn how their writing was so integral to their personalities. The attempts by those around them to constrain and confine these women were created in such away as not to vilify the individuals but demonstrate wider societal views of women and madness. Charlotte Perkins husband’s attempts to get her subscribe to the doctor’s rest cure and stop writing seemed misguided rather than fuelled by patriarchal fervour.

The act of being confined to the attic by the world around leads all of our women to an increased creativity and production of writing that has been absorbed by countless readers over the generations. In our dreams the attic is said to symbolise the higher self, in contact with the most ethereal and least grounded parts of our nature.

Getting into the minds of these four women and what inspired their writing might seem like a daunting task for one play with a cast of six. And it indeed it proved to be, an experience much like a tapas meal of interesting morsels, each one picked up and over before we could get to any real emotions or passions. That the company wrote, produced, directed and performed this work should indeed be praised, it was a treat to see something new on the stage and I’m intrigued to see what they do next. With this piece I was left wanting so much more which explains my desire to go and read.

Mad Women in Attics, New Wimbledon Studion, 9th to 12th March 2011

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‘I just didn’t get any of that’, ‘But what did it all mean’, ‘What was that all about’ mutters the audience as they stumble out of the smoke. In an absurd play where logic and rationality have broken down there will always be a sense of profound disengagement. It is all too easy for the critic to cry ‘I didn’t understand it, it was brash and incoherent’.

But why do we need meaning? Why is it so hard just to let the action play out without having a clear beginning or end?

To attempt to make any sense of a play like Throats you have to leave any expectation of plot, narrative, structure or rational meaning at the door and then see what jumps out at you. Each of our seven characters lacks a coherent linear background, so we don’t have the opportunity to prejudge their dialogue or actions. Yet through the course of the play they do each inhabit their own skin and create a sense of an individual in this chaotic blood soaked world.

Beyond the characters there are some themes, lots of blood, lots of drinking, a car crash, an explosion, an encounter with a blind boy and it seems that Benidorm holds some significance.

I however found it hard to grasp much more than threads. There seemed to be a commentary on terrorism and 9/11 but it is all a bit vague. A constant nagging at the back of my mind made me feel that perhaps I was missing quite a lot, maybe had I seen more absurdist plays or been a drama student or not been so ignorant I may have understood more. Or perhaps in truth it was all too disjointed to leave the viewer with anything other than the feeling of an evening separated from reality.
I am quite happy to never know.

Throats is at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington 18th February to 27th March 2011

Find out more about Gerald Thomas here – http://geraldthomasblog.wordpress.com/

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Science fiction offers alternative futures and sometimes also explores how the past might have played out if something, trivial or not, was different.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel, Years of Rice and Salt, takes this onto a large scale, imagining that the plague of medieval Europe wiped out 99 percent of the population instead of 30 percent.

In Lucky Strike the arena is the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where a different crew goes out to drop the bomb and the man with his finger on the trigger has doubts about the necessity of the mission.

Lucky Strike is an excellent short story that takes you directly into the heart of a world-changing event through some individual characters that would never be counted, whichever history played out.

This novella comes with a short essay deconstructing alternative histories of that day and an interview with Robinson. The essay is interesting but the interview is somewhat disappointing, reading like a standard set of questions from a magazine journalist with little interest in either the politics or the fiction.

The price tag seems a bit steep for this slight book. Instead, why not pick up another Robinson novel and dive into some great science fiction which puts the questions facing humanity in the 21st century under a sharp spotlight? The Mars and Science in the Capital trilogies come highly recommended.

Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson, PM Press, £8.99

Published in Socialist Review February 2011

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Through his research over the last 30 years, Ilan Pappe’s investigations have challenged the Zionist historiography of the Nakba of 1948 and questioned the mythology surrounding the foundation of the Israeli state.

As a lecturer at Haifa University, Pappe supported a student who researched the fate of villages around Haifa by conducting in-depth interviews with both Jews and Palestinians who had witnessed the occupations during 1948. The student’s thesis was picked up by a journalist and forced a response from the army brigade responsible for the deaths of over 200 villagers. The veterans decided to sue for libel and Pappe encountered the might of a state uniting to cover up uncomfortable truths.

Unable to hold conferences or debates, he attempted to run a home university to educate fellow Israelis. Just as he felt he might be beginning to change perceptions, the 2006 Lebanon conflict occurred and any progress was washed away in a tide of jingoistic rhetoric.

Unable to survive as a critical academic within Israel, Pappe accepted a post at Exeter University and now plays a significant role in arguing for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Pappe has contributed to the overturning of much of the mythology surrounding the beginnings of the state of Israel. This memoir explains why he can no longer carry out this role inside the country itself.

Out of the Frame by Ilan Pappe, published by Pluto Press £14.99

Published in Socialist Review December 2010


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First published five years ago this reissue brings together both parts of the story of Satrapi’s childhood and of her return to Iran. Satrapi’s adolescence was in some ways like many other girls growing up in the early 1980s – jumping around her bedroom singing, making friends and lovers, trying to establish who she is. But for Satrapi the question of identity becomes crucial. Sent out of Iran, during the confining years of the Islamic Revolution, she arrives in Germany at the age of 14.

Descended from the last emperor of Iran and born to Marxist radicals, Satrapi draws herself as a lovely, precocious child with a vivid imagination. She talks to god and her grandmother as she tries to figure out what has happened as her world is turned upside down by the Islamic Revolution.

Suddenly thrown into a world of strange customs and laws, Satrapi’s teenage rebellious nature hits out at the authorities around her. Her parents are distressed and decide that her adolescence would be better spent away from the religious strictness.

Ironically, the first place that Satrapi ends up in Germany is a boarding house run by nuns. Moving from place to place she does indeed manage to find drugs, boys and all the fun of being a teenager – but nowhere ever feels like home.

The simplistic black and white style of the graphic novel belies a richness of emotion, creating an absorbing narrative.

Persepolis byMarjane Satrapi, Vintage, £7.99

Published in Socialist Review April 2008


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The award winning Bridge of the Golden Horn was published in German in 1998 and fortunately for English readers has recently been translated with a wonderful introduction from John Berger.

Özdamar often uses her own life as a canvas for her narrative and there are many parallels here – arriving in Germany as a young woman in the 1960s from Turkey without a word of German and trudging back between the workers’ hostel and a radio valve factory. Her descriptions of learning German from the sounds of words and reading captions in newspapers have such a sharp authenticity.

Her German writing has been noted for its “Turkish” style in the patterns of thought and speech. It is hard to know how much has survived translation, but there is unfamiliarity to the way the sentences run from one another smoothly and swirl around the scenes and the characters. The feeling of being a young woman surrounded by an unfamiliar world while at the same time discovering her social, political and sexual liberation is captured superbly.

While many of the people populating the novel are described in a nuanced manner, not through physical description but through their peculiar actions or mannerisms, other familiar characters appear. Salvador Allende and Richard Nixon hover in the background, Lenin’s State and Revolution makes its mark and the communist hostel warden introduces Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Jack London, Tolstoy, Joyce, Sartre and a woman, Rosa Luxemburg.

The Vietnam War provides a focus for discovering the vileness of US imperialism as our nameless protagonist takes part in protests in Berlin and Paris. She discovers the political debates taking place in the Workers’ Association and begins to take acting lessons too.

The acting takes us away from Germany on a freedom fling with a drama troupe into Turkish delight and delirium, where the next coup d’état is always just around the corner. Learning the necessity to lie low, the journey is made through Kurdish mountain villages to the Marmarasea.

A deft storyteller, Özdamar immerses you in these tales, reminding you how it feels when everything is new and everything is possible.

Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Serpent’s Tail, £10.99

Published by Socialist Review November 2007

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When I was 18 I went to Israel and I planted a tree in the Jerusalem “forest”. The tree wasn’t indigenous and the forest was a recent human construction. I have a certificate from the Jewish National Fund (JNF) that states that I helped make Israel green.

The JNF failed to mention that the forest was the site of the Palestinian village of Ayn al-Zaytun, many of whose inhabitants were massacred by Jewish forces in May 1948. Without historians like Ilan Pappe the existence of this village would be confined to those who survived the expulsion.

Israel’s axioms for peace negotiations claim that the present conflict began in 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza Strip were annexed during the Six Day War and that therefore the solution lies in an agreement that determines the future status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Furthermore nothing that happened before 1967 will ever be negotiable. This intends to remove the issue of refugees and the event known as the Nakbah (catastrophe) by Palestinians from any peace negotiations.

In his latest work Pappe takes us step by step through the atrocities of 1947 and 1948. There is also an examination of how this history has been covered up and how ideological motivation of the time continues to drive the Zionist leadership in Israel today to continue the unfinished project of the Nakbah.

Using quotes relating to the ethnic cleansing operations in Yugoslavia in the 1990s the reader is able to draw very direct comparisons to the process that took place in Palestine. A widely accepted definition states that “ethnic cleansing is an effort to render an ethnically mixed country homogenous by expelling a particular group of people and turning them into refugees while demolishing the homes they were driven out from”. Further, it doesn’t matter how the expulsion occurs, whether it is through violence or if people leave because they are worried or frightened and not allowed to come back.

During the 1930s a database was collected of the villages in Palestine including details of topography, quality of land, main sources of income, socio-political composition, and the age of individual men. After riots in the late 1930s, in which Jewish colonial settlers were attacked, lists of individuals involved were added. These village files formed part of the intelligence used during what became known as Plan D (or Dalet).

Plan D was a process of expulsion, extermination, destruction and “de-Arabisation” of Palestine. As Zionist leader Ben Gurion stressed, there was no need to distinguish the guilty, indicated in the village files, from the innocent. The time had come for inflicting collateral damage: “Every attack has to end with occupation, destruction and expulsion.”

By 15 May 1948, the day the state of Israel was declared, half of the Palestinian population had been dispossessed and had fled. And despite truces and ceasefires the operation continued in earnest into 1949 and in one way or another has not stopped since.

The key conclusion drawn in this book is that what happened in 1948 continues to happen today. The project of turning Israel into an exclusive Jewish state is not finished. The building of the wall is the latest attempt to “render an ethnically mixed country homogenous”. Pappe’s book is a vital weapon in exposing the nature of the nakbah and its legacy.

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, Oneworld Publications £16.99 

Published in Socialist Review November 2006

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On paper this shouldn’t work. David Baddiel, who worked with Frank Skinner on the dubious 1990s TV show Fantasy Football League, has written this comedic satire about the consequences of a British-born Pakistani Muslim, Mahmud, discovering that he was adopted and his birth name is Solly Shimshillwitz. Mahmud finds his dying father in a Jewish care home but his access is barred by Matt Lucas’s devout rabbi, who insists he must demonstrate some Jewishness before he can see his father.

At the same time his son’s potential wife has a new stepfather, Arshad Al-Masri, who wants to ensure that his stepdaughter is marrying into a family of “proper” muslims.

Omid Djalili, the kind of comedian who can reduce you to laughter with the raise of an eyebrow, recently played Fagin in the stage production of Oliver, so is no stranger to the idea that Jews are not that different to other cultures originating from the same part of the world. He plays this comedy of recognition superbly alongside Richard Schiff’s American-born London cabbie, Lenny, who teaches him how to say Oy vey, a smattering of Yiddish and that Israeli Jews aren’t real Jews because they have no angst.

Israel is the central tension used in the plot. A pro-Palestinian rally where Mahmud finds himself the centre of attention is the key device for cementing Mahmud’s confusion. It seems that Mahmud can’t be Jewish unless he accepts Zionist ideology. Being a light-hearted comedy this is treated simplistically and never points to the real dilemma that many Jews face by being pressured to support a country that is racist in their name.

The key protagonists are ordinary folk who happen to have a faith background but aren’t particularly devout. Unusually, the comedy doesn’t rely on attempts to assimilate into a dominant culture – as occurs in East is East or Bend it Like Beckham – so our characters are settled in their identities. While based on stereotypes, the religious leaders also pull them apart a little. Mahmud’s imam assumes his big secret is that he’s gay and goes on to explain that despite what is formally written in Islamic scripture, it’s actually alright.

For anyone familiar with Jewish or Muslim British culture this comedy should raise a few smiles. Aside from the cartoon depiction of the villain of the piece, Al-Masri, and his supporters, the characters are painted genuinely and will do much to disrupt the standard depiction of all Muslims as terrorists and religious fundamentalists and goes to show that most of us have more that unites than divides us.

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