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Archive for May, 2009

Last Friday I went to see L’Elisir d’Amour at the Royal Opera House in London. One of the most famous of Donizetti’s 70 operas, it centres on the love of Nemorino for Adina, the village beauty, and the pain he feels at her perpetual rejections. However, with the arrival of Dulcarama, a quack, who peddles potions and lotions for every ailment, including a simple Bordeaux masquerading as an elixir of love, Nemorino’s fortunes look set to change.

In the production I saw I was introduced to Diana Damrau who was singing Adina. She was wondrous. She sang with all the vivacity and boisterousness the character demands whilst retaining a finger on the pulse of the tender and darker heart that beats at the core of Donizetti’s score; a heart whose absence would render the opera a trifling frivolity. At any rate, I was equally as smitten an Nemorino.

As an accident of fate I am due to attend again this evening, and I decided that I would take some flowers to Ms. Damrau as a token of my appreciation of her art along with a letter placed in the flowers. I sat down to write, and I suddenly became worried that perhaps I was not as well versed in the etiquette associated with letter writing as I might have needs been. I know how to address letters, how to sign off, and the various other fairly standard rules relating to correspondence. However, I was keen to ensure I did not make a social faux-pas – after all, if I played my cards right my letter may even solicit a response!

So I began looking into documents that set out the do’s and don’ts for composing a letter. Needless to say the Victorians had a good deal to say on the matter.  The most entertaining diatribe I could find was printed in the New York Times in 1893. Sadly the journalist’s name was not disclosed.  The article is set out below, and is, if nothing else, a fantastic exposition on the use of the comma.

It is well known that the art of letter writing is an art by itself: that is it an index of the culture of the writer and carries his personality in more ways than one. A letter may be written by a very scholarly person, who has travelled and seen much of the world, and yet fall, where the letter is concerned, and, on the other hand, a person may have but little education and spare observation and still excel in correspondence.

Men as a class are terse and concise on paper, and the ordinary letter does not strengthen their case. Whole chapters can be said by the pen in a page or two, so far as they are concerned, except in the case of a love letter, when both men and women view the letter in another sense.

There is no doubt that women are more gifted as letter-writers than men: they are vivacious naturally, and possess that social gaiety and lightness of touch which are part of an epistle’s charm. All young women delight in a voluminous correspondence. It is regarded as an important social function and keeps them in view by those whom distance separates.

For the mere manner of the letter, every season brings us new fashions in note and letter paper. A high-class stationer mentions the royal Worcester, gray wove, and antique parchment as among some of the best in vogue at the moment. The envelopes may be square or oblong as preference dictates, with, however, a fashionable leaning toward the former.

Ruled paper betrays an ignorance of social customs, and in reality belongs to children and uneducated persons, who cannot write without lines.

For headings of stationary tastes differ, and a considerable choice, any of which is permissible, is offered at the shops of known authorities in such matters. A crest, a coat of arms, a monogram, or merely the initials or address are all used, taste only stipulating there shall be nothing garish or outré. Elegance sanctions nothing like red paper with black lettering, or green and gold or any similar dazzling combinations. A few pale tints and some slightly roughened surfaces are not objectionable, but as a rule, smooth, white or cream paper is the safest choice. It may be added that there are unwritten laws of suitability in this matter, as in most things, as an exaggerated elegance and flourish of stationary on the part of persons in modest circumstances adds want of taste to the want of money.

The etiquette of letter writing is almost without end. First, we are told that the letter sent on business would have a stamp and envelope enclosed if any answer is expected at an early date. Then every letter, either business or otherwise, should be answered promptly.  It is not considered form to begin a letter with an apology for not writing, that is, expressed directly, and some particular letter writers always slip the opening sentence about so that the pronoun “I” shall not be the opening word. Another rule is the avoidance of flourishes and eccentricities of handwriting.

Postal cards are to be employed for a business message or an order to an inferior. In polite society their use extends no further.

There is a distinction too in the manner of address, “Dear Mrs. Hopkins” showing a less degree of intimacy than “My Dear Mrs Hopkins”. There forms are, however, quite as often used interchangeably, such use not being regarded in the light of a heinous offence. There is a certain intuitive courtesy in knowing when to drop the formal “Dear Sir” and “Dear Madam” a sort of recognition of one’s claim to acquaintance that is possessed by some persons, and indefinably enjoyed by those to whom it is extended.  It is a bit like the breeding which forestalls an introduction, where the two persons about to be introduced are perfectly well known to each other, either by sight or because, under existing circumstances, neither could be anybody else.

In the matter of signatures there is again and opportunity for the nice discrimination of degrees of intimacy and formality. “Very truly yours” is a shade more cordial perhaps than the “Yours truly” of pure business, and so through “Sincerely”, “Cordially”, and “Faithfully”, with and without the adverbs “most” and “very”. Women of tact and courtesy know how to put a pleasant warmth in their letters by just the closing of them – perhaps that is why they are apt to be such acceptable correspondents – and they rarely err, either, in knowing when to put it.

Punctilious persons, either men or women, never avail themselves of hotel or club-house paper in notes of ceremony. To such, their portfolio is almost as individual as their soap dish. And punctilious men do not use office paper for social correspondence. At a friend’s house or abroad a friend’s yacht, however, the host’s stationary is welcome. And it may be added as a final word that the punctilious guest always sends his letter to the house or yacht mail bag stamped!

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And of his royal person I can give no farther account; but certainly a braver prince never lived, having in the day of the fight hazarded his person much more than any officer of his army, riding from regiment to regiment, and leading them upon service with all the encouragement (calling every officer by his name) which the example and exhortation of a magnanimous general could afford; showing so much steadiness of mind and undaunted courage in such continual danger, that had not God covered his head, and wonderfully preserved his sacred person, he must in all human reason needs have perished that day.

So wrote an unnamed Royalist of the performance at the battle of Worcester of Charles Stuart (later King Charles II). Yet despite his gallant bravery, fearless conduct and noble generosity, the young Charles was duly thrashed by Cromwell’s armies.  Charles was fighting for his birthright – the throne of England. Cromwell was fighting for his idea of the Republic, and arguably the quasi throne he placed himself on as Lord Protector.

Defeat meant flight for the young Charles. Cromwell and his allies had after all executed Charles’ father King Charles I in 1649, so to stay in a country crawling with Parliamentary troops who would be perfectly happy to spend a Sunday afternoon watching the pretender to the throne having his head lopped off would have been unwise to say the least. And where is the only stylish place to be exiled if one is a blue blood Englishman? Why France of course. Thus Charles set out from Worcester in a bid to reach the continent.

 What is the reason for this impromptu history lesson? Well you might ask.

 It just so happens that we have an accurate record of the route taken by the young man who was after Cromwell’s death to become Charles II , but in 1651 was a wanted man. This route has been turned into a public footpath aptly named The Monarch’s Way.

 The route is divided into three sections. Worcester to Stratford Upon Avon is part I. Stratford Upon Avon to Charmouth (via Bristol) is part II, and finally from Charmouth to Shoreham from whence Charles sailed to France. The route totals over 600 miles and was travelled by the Royal party in 6 weeks. 

Monarch's way

Now it is my turn. With Sir William Wilmot as company I am going to undertake to walk the 210 miles from Stratford Upon Avon. 

In the coming weeks I will be writing up our Royalist adventure as we retrace steps taken by the King, 358 years ago. I will add historical comment largely drawn from the marvellous work of Richard Ollard The Escape of Charles II and also any adventures and mishaps that may befall our party. 

By the grace of God our journey will be speedy and resolute, and doubtless the peasants of Gloucester will be as gracious to me and Sir William, as they were to His Royal Highness.

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The following is an extract from Sense and Sensibility, and to my mind perfectly sums up why I am beginning to really enjoy Jane Austen and why she has been read by so many millions of people; terse and deeply entertaining dialogue, perfect characterisation and an entertaining wander through issues that preoccupy us now as fervently as they did the characters placed in the early 19th century. 

To bring those who have not yet the book up to speed, the “Sense” of the novel is Elinor, and the Sensibility is Marianne (her sister). The scene is thus; Elinor, Marianne, Margaret (the third sister) and their mother, Mrs Dashwood are at their new home in Devon many miles from their native Sussex.  Edward Farrars, a former potential love match for Elinor has called. Willoughby (as referred to) is the absent lover of Marianne.

“‘What are Mrs. Farrars’s views for you at present Edward?’ said she [Mrs Dashwood], when dinner was over, and they had drawn round the fire; ‘are you still to be a great orator in spite of yourself?’

‘No. I hope my mother is now convinced that I have no more talents than inclination for public life.’

‘But how is your fame to be established? for famous you must be to satisfy all of your family; and with no inclination for expense, no affectation for stranger, no proffession, and no assurance, you may find it a difficult matter.’

‘I shall not attempt it. I have no wish to be distinguished; and I have every reason to hope I never shall. Thank Heaven! I cannot be forced into genius and eloquence.’

‘You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.’ 

‘As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish, as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so.’

‘Strange if it would’ cried Marianne. ‘What have wealth or grandeur got to do with happiness?’

‘Grandeur has but little’ said Elinor, ‘but wealth has much to do with it.’

‘Elinor for shame!’ said Marianne; ‘money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Elinor, smiling, ‘we , may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I daresay; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come what is your competence?’

‘About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that.’

Elinor laughed. ‘Two thousand a year; One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end.’

‘And yet two thousand a year is a very moderate income,’ said Marianne. ‘A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.’

Elinor smiled again, to hear her sister describing so accurately their future expenses at Combe Magna [the estate of Willoughby].

‘Hunters!’ repeater Edward; ‘but why must you have hunters? Everybody does not hunt.’

Marianne coloured as she replied, ‘But most people do.’

‘I wish’ said Margaret, striking out a novel thought, ‘that somebody would give us a large fortune apiece!’

‘Oh that they would!’ cried Marianne, her eyes sparkling with animation, and her cheeks glowing with the delight of such imaginary happiness.

‘We are unanimous in that wish I suppose’ said Elinor, ‘in spite of the insufficiency of wealth.’

 

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Yesterday I attended a preview of the film Chéri and a Question and Answers with the director and writer. What follows is a review of sorts. I have tried not to give any of the plot away.

Chéri is the new film from director Steven Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) and writer Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement), starring Michelle Pfeiffer, and thus reuniting the trio for the first time in 21 years.  The film is based on the novella of the same named penned by Collette perhaps most famous (at least in the English speaking world) for Gigi.

Sadly, the film is a lazily and hastily conceived pastiche of life and love in belle epoche Paris.  What should have been an emotional story about the gut wrenching, and ultimately doomed love between a young man and an older woman, was instead merely an excuse to deploy an expertly assembled set of costumes hung on a few big name stars with no other purpose it seems than to get box office sales.

I had a pretty strong hunch that this would be the case when the film opened with a voiceover (the narrator was played by Frears himself) which explained to the audience what a courtesan was and the sorts of things they got up to, what the belle epoch was, I was half expecting a world map with a clumsily placed Eiffel Tower. Such devices merely serve to treat audiences as fools, a crime of the highest order; for even if we did not have clue about life in the belle epoch surely that is why the film will be exciting. Perhaps perhaps we might actually learn something from watching the film, understanding the narrative and inferring from that, facts about the type of society which the characters inhabit. In other words, cinema is exciting when we have to use our brains, and boring when we are spoon fed every detail especially when the feeder is the director’s voiceover!

What made this so much worse was the fact that in the Q & A afterwards, Steven admitted that they had no intention of using voiceover. It was in fact a response to test audiences who could not work out what was going on. Who did they show it to? The set was absurdly of its time, it would be akin to making a film set in the 2000s and the characters inhabiting The Design Museum. The costumes were exact to every minute detail. Dates were peppered through the script. There were constant references to the sexual exploits of, and the rich rewards given to, the female protagonists. What is not to get? Even without the voiceover it was child’s-play to put the pieces together. At any rate, I thought the answer Steven gave to the question showed that he had not had an overarching vision of what the film should be, and this lack of vision bled into every aspect of the film.

The insults to the audience were not only manifested in the voiceover. There were manifold and totally unnecessary flashbacks. The narrator kept telling us what the characters were thinking. The score shunned any one of the exquisite impressionist music created in the belle epoche, plumping instead for music redolent of TV crime drams. Any shots that displayed any hint of cinematic mastery (I’m thinking particularly of the beach shot in Biarritz) were cut in seconds  in a desperate attempt to hold the attention of minds infected by the short-termism of Britain’s Got Talent.

The acting was wooden with the occasional exception of Rupert Friend (Chéri). Michelle Pfeiffer looked the part of his older lover and she managed brief moments of dramatic intensity even if the constant wandering of her accent was a shade off putting.  Kathy Bates was horribly miscast as an aging Madame Peloux (Chéri’s mother), who was once one of Paris’ most powerful courtesans and a member of the corps de ballet. Although I am willing to suspend disbelief to a certain degree, I was seriously sceptical that Kathy Bates could ever have executed an Arabesque let alone have ever been considered a great beauty (my apologies to Ms. Bates).

The combination of poor acting and a limp script meant that there was no emotional involvement with the characters, and what is in essence a tragic love story along the lines of La Dame aux Camellias became merely a wander through some pretty sets in pretty clothes.

What brings all of these criticisms together was evinced in the answers to two questions posed to Steven Frears. The first was “When you read a script do you instantly see shots, hear music and know which actors to use?”. The second was “Did you do much research into the costumes”.  In response to the former he replied along the lines that he did not really see anything when he read a script, he’d have a vague idea of what to do, but would largely work it out on set. At this point Hampton stepped in and said “you always know what you don’t want”. The answer to the latter was that he had done no research, he just knew who to hire to do the costumes. Both of these responses seem to point to a man who is not making films for art any longer. There is no overarching design in the mind of the artist, and therefore no attention to detail; no real interest in how the film comes across. If there is no vision for a piece of film how can it ever be visionary, let alone interesting.

It seems that Steven Frears is no longer interested in cinema. With Chéri there is a distinct whiff that he simply had to make just another film to follow on from The Queen. He has shown the world that rather than a film maker he is a jobbing director.

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“So where do you go out when you go partying? I mean, are you more like East End, or West End?”

“To be completely honest, I don’t really go out much these days.”

“Oh really”, she squealed, “what’s that about?”

His gaze switched from the invisible point of fascination that lay in the middle distance somewhat to the right of the girl he was talking to, to the kitchen door, through which a young man in a white smock with a tightly cropped black beard had just passed, holding two metal dishes in either hand. Having set one on each end of the second table, the waiter set down a small collection of what was described as venison kebab.

“Well, I just seem to have become”, he paused, leaned forward just slightly toward the steaming plate of meat, and drew toward his nostrils the sweet clove infused vapour it was giving off, “rather a suburbanite”.  He smiled wryly as this was not altogether true.

“Oh, dear,” came the response which he assumed reflected the fact that she now had to dream up a new topic of conversation  as much as it did commiserations that he was clearly so old at such a young age.

Moments passed. They both strained to hear what the other guests on the table, to their side and opposite were saying, and yet everyone seemed to have reached the same silent conclusion, and chatter has petered out. Luckily the bearded waiter returned bearing a metallic bowl set in a wooden base containing bright red curried prawns, and a white bowl containing a burnt gold lentil preparation. He glanced up toward the face that  had announced the dish, and for a moment he looked into his deep brown reflective eyes. A polite smile and the waiter was gone.

“Smells wonderful”, she said as she wafted her hands energetically over the food, “I love small dishes, you know where you can try a bit of everything.”

“Indeed,” came the laconic response.

The blessed relief of flavour flooded his brain with pleasure as the first mouthful of the deep rusty venison hit the back of his tongue and the slightly gamey meat crept through a waterfall of fruity spices delicately combined to be at once sweet,  fragrant and capable of being overpowered. Next came the prawns that had scrunched themselves into tight spirals as they were fried in ghee with bright red spices. The strength of the green chilli that so contrasted with the pungent red sauce they swam in, was just enough to send a ripple down the tip of his tongue and toward his tonsils, and yet was immediately tamed by the sugary almond and the delicate coconut that came with it.

He was aware of not having spoken for several minutes. At the precise moment of this recognition, the Chinese lady opposite had uttered the words “of course I always forget just how far away Clapham is from the centre of town” which drew groans of approval from the section of the table which she held in her court, and so he decided to reach across and relieve the man sat opposite of the obligation to eat all of the taster dish of tandoori cod that had appeared whilst he had been ruminating upon the lentil dhal and her banal commentary.

He ate and ate and became full followed by bloated. But he needed the variation that came with each mouthful, the entertainment that was lavished on his taste buds with every spoon of sauce, the textures and colours and smells and chilli that kept everything alive and relevant. The old map of India that was printed on the menu became the image of exploration and desire as the food its lines of latitude represented was presented to him. He had never been there, and yet for one moment he was lifted to a world that was thousands of miles away from Anna, millions of miles away from Su Lin and Essence PR Agency, and an unknowable distance from that inauspicious Soho basement.

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