Are you a Wittertainee? I mean, of course, do you listen to Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast from BBC 5 Live? I’ve been a devotee of the Church of Wittertainment (as their fans are known) for many years (hello to Jason Isaacs, by the way), long enough to remember way back when they first launched the renowned Wittertainment Code of Conduct for cinemas.
This started out as Mark Kermode’s and Simon Mayo’s not very serious response to the many emails from listeners about the increasing prevalence of bad behaviour in cinemas, but it quickly became something really quite significant. Our Screen Machine mobile cinema has a copy posted by the entrance, and a few years ago I was delighted to find a copy in a similarly prominent position in one of Berlin’s top cinemas. The Code starts obviously enough with prohibitions on talking during the film, or using your mobile phone, eating noisy food, or kicking the seat in front. But some items get a bit more esoteric, including: ‘No shoe removal: You are not in your own front room. Nor are you in Japan (unless you are, in which case, carry on).‘
That crack about Japan came back to me during our recent, and first, holiday in Lisbon, where we experienced not one, but two disconcerting examples of audience behaviour, and were left wondering whether each was considered in any way normal in Portugal, and , whether, therefore, we would have been wrong to make a fuss. In one case we did, in the other we didn’t. Was either decision correct? What is the etiquette when forming part of a foreign audience? When in Japan, should you take your shoes off (regardless of any resulting pungent odour)?
This all started a couple of months ago when, having booked our flights and hotel for Lisbon, I did what I always do on these occasions and searched for what concerts might be available while we were there. To my great excitement I found that the most exciting young pianist of the moment, Igor Levit, was going to make his Portuguese debut during our stay. Not only that, but he was going to be playing two of the works from his latest recording which had just won The Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year Award. And to put the icing on the cake, the concert was in the Fundação Gulbenkian, just a short walk from our hotel.
As you can imagine, by the time we actually got to the concert hall, my anticipation was intense. The Gulbenkian concert hall is a lovely wood panelled space, seating, I guess, about 1200, and it was almost full, which was impressive for the demandingly intellectual programme on offer. We settled down to enjoy the immense hour-long journey that is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and quickly appreciated that the hall’s acoustic was perfect for a solo piano. Unfortunately, it was also perfect for making clearly audible something much less uplifting: the utter barrage of coughing that broke out as soon as Levit’s fingers touched the keys, and which then persisted throughout the whole work. It was rare to get more than ten seconds of cough-free music. And it wasn’t just a few very sick individuals. Coughs resounded from every part of the auditorium. Several would go off at once. It was like trying to listen to a concert in the middle of a zoo, or the Gunfight at OK Corral (except that only lasted a few seconds…).
We really felt for Igor Levit. How he maintained his concentration, playing this Everest of the piano repertoire from memory, was a marvel to behold. As we discussed at the interval, if nothing else such behaviour (no one ever seemed to try to stifle their cough) seemed incredibly insulting to such a great artist. Yet at the interval the audience had given him a standing ovation! Perhaps that was just all the non-coughers acknowledging the scale of his achievement….
After the interval things did get better, partly because Frederick Rzewski’s equally monumental ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ is a more torrential, acoustically overwhelming work than the Beethoven, and partly because some of the worst coughers seemed to have chosen to leave at the interval rather than expose themselves to a late 20th century masterpiece. But it was still much noisier than the average Moscow winter audience on old Soviet Radio relays from the 60s. I had thought of saying something to a member of staff at the interval, but in the end got cold feet—we were outsiders, after all. Perhaps this was normal, in Lisbon, in December.
Two evenings later we were at a free recital in the ornate Palàcio Foz in the centre of Lisbon, performed by the Trio Cremeloque, and taking a fascinatingly different approach to familiar Piano Trios of Beethoven and Haydn, with the usual violin and cello replaced by an oboe and bassoon. It was one of a regular series of free concerts, and the hall was packed. And even as the musicians started playing, several in the audience (all Portuguese) were busily photographing them on their phones. The middle aged man next to Judith even starting videoing the concert. This was too much. Judith gave him a sharp slap on the arm and he desisted—at least until the encore when the camera was out again, his raised arm blocking the view of those around him. Yet in between he had seemed intensely focused on the music. Once again the very fine musicians were given a standing ovation—which raised another unanswered question—are standing ovations the norm in Lisbon, rather than the very rare exception that they are in douce Edinburgh?
Lisboans, we found, are immensely welcoming, courteous and helpful people, and it was a delight to spend time among them. Indeed it is their very reticence and laid back character—certainly when compared with their counterparts in Madrid!—that made these two experiences seem, by contrast, so very odd. But maybe they would find the reverential behaviour of the average British classical music audience oddly cold and uninvolved. A mystery to solve—as if we needed an excuse to return to the delights of Lisbon!
Mind you, sometimes you can really get it wrong. Many years ago we went to a choral concert in Italy. We arrived, we thought, well before the advertised start time, only to find the Choir already on stage, singing away lustily. But the Italian audience was behaving atrociously: chatting loudly, moving about, even eating in some cases. We were stunned. Surely even Italians, we thought, couldn’t be this badly behaved as an audience. But then, after ten minutes or so, the choir all filed off stage. It turned out they were just doing their warm up. A few minutes later they returned in more formal manner, and their performance was then listened to in complete and attentive silence. And no one, as far as I could tell, took their shoes off.
© Robert Livingston December 2016
Last Monday I went to the Royal Opera House. I didn’t dress up, and I had one of the best seats in the house for the princely sum of £12.50. And I didn’t even have to leave Edinburgh. I was, of course, at a screening of ‘event cinema’, in this case, a new production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’.
The venue was the Odeon in Lothian Road. One of the interesting aspects of the continuing growth of ‘event cinema’—live or ‘encore’ relays of music, dance, drama and the visual arts—is that it’s in no way confined to arthouse cinemas and arts venues; the multiplexes have come on board in a big way. ‘Norma’ was already sold out at the Cameo Cinema, just a couple of hundred yards from the Odeon, and a pioneer in event cinema programming. So it’s not surprising that there were about 50 of us in the auditorium at the Odeon, which I would have thought would have been a good audience for any screening there on a Monday evening. But ‘Norma’ was also showing across town at the Vue Omni and, for all I know, at some or all of the edge-of-town multiplexes as well.
The staff at the Odeon are clearly keen to build an audience for these screenings. We were handed a programme by an usher as our tickets were checked, and told ‘you’re in for a dramatic evening!’ (which was true), and another member of staff, armed with a microphone, gave us a warm welcome before the relay started, and encouraged us to come back for future screenings. At the interval a trolley was rolled out with, alongside the usual ice creams, mini-bottles of Prosecco. Bless.
I’m always surprised to find that there are both cinema-goers and arts aficionados who not only have never been to an ‘event cinema’ screening, but are not even sure what it’s like. I still get asked, for example, if it’s just a single, static camera. So, for any readers who’re in that category, let me sum up my experience.
First, the seats are extremely comfortable and the sightlines are excellent. The HD projection is crystal clear and the sound is remarkably full and convincing. The subtitles are easily readable but small enough to be ignored. The introductions and the interval chats range from the cringingly gushing to the genuinely informative, especially when conductor Antonio Pappano is talking about the music.
The key aspect, of course, is the camerawork. Relays like this can use between 6 and 8 different cameras, and the director is usually working from a carefully crafted shooting script based on close prior observation, and where possible full camera rehearsals. The occasionally fluffed camera movement reminds you that this is still, to some extent, being caught ‘on the wing’, but most of the time the camerawork is fluent and unobtrusive. But it does two crucial things. It inevitably offers us an interpretation of the performance because it is the director’s choice as to what we see at any given moment; our eyes are not free to roam across the full stage picture. For some, that is the medium’s chief drawback. But it also means that our attention is drawn to details, actions, expressions that would be easily missed by—or perhaps even not fully visible to—those in the audience at the actual performance.
What this really means is that a cinema relay of a performance is not a replacement of that performance, it is something sui generis. I was thrilled and excited by ‘Norma’. The singing was magnificent, the staging was intriguing, and the filming drew me into the heart of the action and of the passionate, life or death emotions. I genuinely believe that I could not have enjoyed the experience more had I been sitting in the Royal Opera House itself. I might have enjoyed it as much, but for different reasons. I would have been stimulated by the atmosphere (though perhaps put off by the sense that some, at least, in the audience were there more for social than musical reasons), and I would have felt a special auditory thrill in response to such superb singing, but I might have had a restricted view, a neighbour with irritating habits, and a slight feeling of discomfort from being dressed up for the occasion. As several writers have already noted, ‘event cinema’ is becoming an artform of its own. I’ve elsewhere compared it to the early days of television, when viewers had to become used to the idea that this was neither a film in a box nor radio with pictures, but something else.
In the case of ‘Norma’, there is one additional intriguing aspect. Almost uniformly the London critics disliked the production, and indeed it was apparently booed on the opening night. Now, it’s certainly not a conventional production: the Catalan director Alex Ollé has replaced the Druidism of the original with a fanatical modern sect that is very like, but not identical to, aspects of the Catholic Church. The ‘sacred grove’ of the original is made up of a forest of hundreds of crucifixes. The High Priestess Norma is dressed like a modern day bishop—something that will be more shocking in the director’s home country than in Anglican circles! The critics seem to have found this shift confusing, wrong-headed or excessive.
Now, for me and for the friends I was with, in the cinema in Edinburgh, the production was almost completely comprehensible and persuasive, and was much more dramatically pointed than would have been a faithful evocation of the world of 1st century AD Gaul. Was this because we had had the advantage of hearing the stage director explain his approach, and of seeing how the camera director presented that vision to us? In that respect, were we actually better off than the audience in the Royal Opera House?
Event Cinema is not going to go away: rather, it’s going to continue to grow. At many venues the entire New York Met season of relays sells out within days of being announced. For many smaller venues, especially outside the cities, it has become both a financial lifeline and a valuable way of expanding the cultural offering to their communities. The big national companies that so far dominate the scene say that they’ve seen no drop off in attendances at their live performances as a result, rather the reverse. Cinemas say that they’re attracting a new audience, one that doesn’t come to the normal film programme, and that was certainly the case in the Odeon last Monday. Yet it’s not without its critics. Those who are keen to promote films outside the Multiplex mainstream understandably feel threatened by event cinema. After all, if your programming choice is between an obscure foreign language film, and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’, which is going to make you more money and, more important, which is going to please a larger audience?
And there is (pardon the pun) a very large elephant in the room. At present there is absolutely no Scottish content being offered through ‘event cinema’ routes. Across Scotland, many audiences are becoming more familiar with the work of the New York Met, or the National Theatre in London, than with the work of the Scottish companies they pay for through their taxes. The scenario is perhaps a bit like the early days of the Edinburgh Festival, which was criticised for bringing in foreign companies and artforms at the expense of homegrown Scottish culture, because at that time there was no equivalent showcase for that culture, at least until Hamish Henderson and others laid the foundations for what became the Fringe. Maybe we need a similar initiative now, so that audiences in, say, Thurso, can have the choice between the Royal Opera, and Scottish Opera.
© Robert Livingston September 2016
What are we listening to when we listen to music? That may seem tautological, but bear with me. The question was prompted by listening (courtesy of Spotify) to a remarkable recording of the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, performed by the South African-born, London-based pianist, Daniel-Ben Pienaar, hitherto unknown to me.
Though I’d grown up with the named sonatas like the Moonlight, which my mother used to play, I only got to know all 32 Beethoven sonatas—the so called ‘New Testament’ of the piano—back in 1990, when our friend Gustav Fenyo performed complete cycles in a series of concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Gustav has always seemed to me an under-appreciated musician, and his playing, especially of those sonatas I’d not previously encountered, was a revelation. Across those 32 incredible works he revealed an imagination and an energy at work that has few parallels in any art form in history.
More recently I’ve been enjoying Paul Lewis’s complete recording, for its clarity, its sense of structure, and its intense musicality, but I only had to listen to one of Pienaar’s performances to know that this was music making in a different league.
A great deal of ink has been spilt, in the world of classical music, on the subject of interpretation. There are those who favour the approach of, to take an extreme example, a Glenn Gould, who so impresses his own vision on a score that it effectively becomes ‘Gould’s Beethoven’, or Bach, or whoever. At the other extreme is a pianist like Alfred Brendel, famed for his fidelity to the score, and the modesty of his own personality, musically speaking that is. Daniel-Ben Pienaar fits neither of these stereotypes. There is nothing remotely objective about his playing, but nor is it wilfully idiosyncratic. For me, it’s like cleaning an Old Master—as if he’s stripped away layers of accretion to reveal what Beethoven originally intended. A dangerous claim, of course, and perhaps a foolish one.
So I began to think about why his performances were affecting me so strongly. It was Goethe who apparently first called architecture ‘frozen music’, but, according to some sources online, the full quote should be ‘music is liquid architecture, and architecture is frozen music’. The first part of that statement is what I want to focus on. As we listen to music we experience it as flow, as duration in time. But, in something like a Beethoven sonata, we also—if we already know it—hold in our heads our awareness of its overall structure—its architecture—or else, we come to understand that structure retrospectively.
The best performers, and, I would argue, the best listeners, need to hold this contradiction in balance, to understand and experience the music as simultaneously flow and architecture. This is what I think Pienaar does consummately. Listening to the variation movement at the end of Op 109, one of the ‘late’ sonatas, it seemed to me that Pienaar was unfolding the music as a fine jazz pianist develops an improvisation—like Keith Jarrett’s famous ‘Köln Concert’—and, like Jarrett, even as he gave the impression of spontaneously discovering the music’s direction, so he was all the time holding in his head that crucial sense of its destination. Beethoven, after all, was famed in his lifetime above all for his improvisations at the keyboard.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to Western classical music, it’s equally true of jazz like Keith Jarrett’s, or of non-western traditions like Indian ragas. And this is where, finally, we come to Erwin Schrödinger and his infamous thought experiment, involving putting a cat in jeopardy. Schrödinger was attempting to illustrate the paradox that an electron can be simultaneously thought of as both a wave and a particle, and so you can never be certain, at the same time, of both its location and its velocity. He envisaged putting a cat in a box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter records an emitted particle, it smashes the bottle and the cat dies. As quantum theory claims that we only ‘collapse’ a particle into a specific state by observing it, we’re faced with the paradox that we only know if the cat is alive or dead by opening the box and that, until that point, it could be said to be both alive and dead.
So, a truly gifted musician will resolve that paradox. He or she will be able to present the music—from a composer’s score, or as they improvise it–as both flow and architecture, or, to pursue the metaphor, as both wave and particle. When that resolution is achieved we, the listeners, may have an extraordinarily heightened experience; as when, even on a recording, the last movement of Op 109 can reduce me to tears. This is why, of course, it’s so important for those presenting new and/or unfamiliar music to tell audiences how long it’s going to last. How we respond to music we don’t know will be entirely different according to whether we expect it to last five or fifty minutes. Imagine being sat down to a Bruckner symphony without knowing what was coming.
I think this also applies to other artforms. A couple of weeks ago I saw the latest double bill from the wonderful Scottish Dance Theatre. I was very glad indeed that the programme gave the durations for both works. The incidental gestures, interactions, and set pieces all fell beautifully into place as I anticipated them moving towards each work’s conclusion. Flow and architecture. This is perhaps the main reason why I find e-readers so unsatisfactory. There’s something very pleasurable about glancing at a book and seeing from the location of the bookmark how far you’ve gone, and how much pleasure—or effort—still awaits you. A digital notification that you’re on ‘page 92 of 483’ just doesn’t do it for me, not least because they’re not real pages!
On the other hand, too great a familiarity with duration and structure can be a drawback. If the average TV cop drama is always an hour long (give or take adverts) then you always know when the villain is about to be unmasked. You may experience the pleasure of anticipation, but not the greater stimulus of complete surprise.
So, to come back to where I started: what I think I’m listening to, when I listen to Pienaar’s Beethoven, is an extraordinarily sensitive response to that crucial need to hold flow and architecture in balance. Or, to use a quote attributed to another great German thinker, Gottfried Leibnitz: ‘Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting’.
© Robert Livingston, March 2015
Today is the day I mark, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, my 60th year to heaven, so it seems an appropriate time to resume this much neglected blog. As it happens, the exigencies of schedules mean that Judith and I have already celebrated my unbirthday last weekend, with a trip south that included the essential Pitlochry experience: seeing two different plays on the same day with the same cast.
Now I’m sure that for many people the name ‘Pitlochry Festival Theatre’ conjures up an image of a theatrical world that is self-consciously conservative, safe and bland. In the past, that could at times be true. Ten years ago we saw a production of WS Gilbert’s ‘Engaged’ at Pitlochry which nudged the audience so often that you’d have thought the director was Eric Idle in Python persona. It was as if the production was making a point that this play was creaky and old-fashioned, but wasn’t that fun? Particularly uncomfortable were the crassly caricatured portrayals of Gilbert’s already stereotyped Scottish characters.
On the face of it, our choice of plays last week might have served only to confirm that this historic impression was still valid. What could James Bridie and JM Barrie possibly offer contemporary audiences beyond a certain curiosity value, or a measure of nostalgia for the days of the ‘well-made’ play? That was, in fact, my reason for wanting to see them—how would they sit in the company of such modern equivalents, in the Pitlochry season, as Stephen Greenhorn’s classic ‘Passing Places’ or Liz Lochhead’s ‘Perfect Days’? The result was a very pleasant surprise—we found both plays thoroughly gripping from beginning to end, helped in no small measure by direction, and acting, which played them absolutely straight, with not a hint of a collusive wink to the audience. The humour in them was the humour put there by the writers, not a modern gloss by the director. Certainly, both productions were among the most satisfying theatrical experiences we’ve had in a long time.
In fact, Barrie’s ‘The Admirable Crichton’ has received almost uniform critical praise for both play and production, with several writers noting how it is a necessary corrective to the current culture of ‘Downton Abbey’ rose-tinted sentimentality. I’d only add that it’s nothing like the anodyne Kenneth More film version, and that it’s always good to be reminded of how acid and dark a writer Barrie could be. After all, one of his early novels, ‘Better Dead’, was based on the premise of bumping off prominent figures in society to make room for new blood. But I was surprised that many critics, while praising the production of ‘Mr Bolfry’, wrote the play itself off as outdated and with little to say to a contemporary audience. Really? This is a play, set during a war, which confronts the dualities of faith and reason, doubt and certainty, societal norms and individual freedoms. How can that not be resonant? One only needs to imagine a production in Tehran, Baghdad or Jerusalem to discard any idea of the play being irrelevant. But, even close to home, it seems that those metropolitan critics need to get out more, and discover more of the hold which the Free Church still has in some quarters of the Highlands and Islands, or, much more alarmingly, the current resurgence of extreme evangelism in some rural communities in Wales.
The last time—the only other time—I’d seen a James Bridie play was in 1976, when the Royal Lyceum staged ‘The Anatomist’, based on the Burke and Hare story. Now that was creaky, the whole production being built around Tom Fleming’s star turn as Dr Knox. But this production of ‘Mr Bolfry’ was a different matter altogether: a truly ensemble cast which could readily absorb Dougal Lee’s rip-roaring turn as the devilish Bolfry, an imaginative set, and a production which took great care in getting the period detail right, without swamping the play in nostalgia. A large matinee audience sat with intent concentration throughout, with barely a smothered cough, and not a snore, to be heard. Bridie delights in intellectual argument, but those arguments arise out of his individual characters, who are not simply mouthpieces for Bride himself. And the play comes to no easy conclusion—unlike the plays of some of Bridie’s more polemical modern day counterparts, such as David Hare—but ends, instead, like ‘The Admirable Crichton’, on an uneasily unresolved note, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions.
This is the month of the second ‘Luminate’, set up by Creative Scotland to be Scotland’s ‘creative ageing festival’. I suppose, as I enter my seventh decade, I should be taking an interest in such an event, but the concept of ‘creative ageing’ is as abhorrent to me as SAGA holidays or adverts for stair lifts. In fact, I think there’s a paradox at work here. Even while an initiative like ‘Luminate’ is seeking to promote and showcase the ‘growing evidence of the importance of creative activities to our wellbeing as we age’, there’s widespread concern about ‘ageing’ audiences for the ‘mainstream’ arts. Well, it’s true that, even on the verge of 60, I was in the youngest 5% of the audience for those Pitlochry plays, but the important point is that they were very well attended. A mid-week matinee at the start of October was more than two-thirds full, while the evening performance was almost sold out. And, as I’ve implied, these large audiences were for plays that offered plenty to think and talk about afterwards. But you won’t find Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the ‘Luminate’ programme.
Anyway, I’ve a suspicion that the anxiety about ageing audiences is often misplaced. The following night we were at a sold-out performance in the Usher Hall by the RSNO, and the age range present was pretty well comprehensive, even in the more expensive stalls seats. Up in the Gallery, there were many young people. And this was for no lightweight programme with big name soloists. The orchestra’s own outstanding lead cellist played the Elgar Concerto superbly, and the second half was taken up with Bruckner’s mighty 7th Symphony. The same spread of ages then was evident at a truly exceptional concert the following evening in St Giles, given by the Vox Coelestis choir. Again, no obvious favourites in the highly imaginative programme.
I suppose I worry about fragmentation. About concentrating on the benefits for older people (or children, for that matter) of participating in the arts, when we ought to be shouting about how everyone can benefit from such participation. About implying that some kinds of participation are ‘better’ or more appropriate than others—taking part in a dance class rather than going to Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for example. Though to be fair, the Luminate programme is so broad church that you wonder about the criteria for inclusion. Once we start talking about ‘Arts for older people’, or ‘Arts for young people’, or for those with special needs, or from minority ethnic backgrounds, we both start to erect unnecessary barriers, and we imply a certain benign paternalism, a conferring of benefits ‘de haut en bas’ that makes me feel rather queasy. James Bridie, were he still around, could write a great play about it. After all, his son did go on to head up the Scottish Arts Council!
The haunting image of an Indian dancer, projected multiple times on to a length of woven tweed.
A packed audience straining to see the miniscule performances at a flea circus
Seventy children bringing back to life the memory of a 200 year old house through music and dance
An over-60s choir singing joyfully on a busy High Street
Scotland’s Makar reciting The Twa Corbies
One of the witches from ‘Macbeth’ delivering the ‘double double’ speech in the local Coop, as if it was a Nigella recipe
A magical digital panorama of toads creating new life.
These are just some of the haunting, moving, funny and downright bizarre experiences that I’ve had in the last two weeks.
In these difficult times it must take a degree of ambition and sheer nerve to embark on a new artistic venture, so it’s been gratifying to experience not one but two such new enterprises, within the same fortnight, and at opposite ends of the country.
Our first week of consultations towards a Cultural Strategy for the Scottish Borders happily coincided with the launch of the YES Festival —not a political statement, but a new festival for Yarrow, Ettrick and Selkirk–and then, just over a week later and back home in the north, I went along to the first Culture Day for Forres, Kinloch and Findhorn, which is itself intended to be the forerunner of a new Findhorn Bay Arts Festival to be held in a year’s time.
Despite the geographic distance, these two events had a lot in common. Though each centred on a Royal Burgh, the programmes of events in each also spread out to surrounding communities. Both transformed the town’s High Street with a range of exhibitions and pop-up events. Both involved a huge amount of community and voluntary participation, of all ages, but depended at their core on the enthusiasm and commitment of a few key individuals, and thorough, professional promotion, management and coordination. Both, as far as I could tell, seemed to be generating a lot of local interest and involvement, with sizeable audiences for most, if not all events.
The great thing about festivals and special days is that they’re so much more than the sum of their parts. Throw yourself into the experience, and you’ll quickly forget or ignore those bits that weren’t so good, but feel exhilarated by the sheer imagination, diversity, and surprise of everything else. And people will move mountains to make such an event work, in a way that can’t be sustained week on week, month on month, throughout the year.
But festivals are also like cake—very tasty, but you can’t live on that alone. Festivals thrive best when they’re rooted in a mulch of year-round activities. By a further happy coincidence, I’ve also in this fortnight been to the celebrations of the 15th anniversary of a very special means of delivering such year-round experiences, the Screen Machine Mobile Cinema. Setting up, and for many years managing, the mobile cinema operation is one of the things I’m proudest to have been associated with, though the lion’s share of the credit has to go to the two guys about to cut the birthday cake in this photo—the driver/operators Iain McColl and Neil MacDonald. Without their incredible dedication, and sheer love of the job, the Screen Machine would never have become the much-loved fixture it now is, in so many small communities across Scotland.
In a recent, by now notorious, speech to the Edinburgh Fringe, the English playwright Mark Ravenhill incited his audience not only to prepare for a possible future without public arts funding, but also, as artists, to in some respects feel freed up by not having to make the compromises that he believes are involved in accepting such funding. But where does that leave the wider community? One central factor that all these ventures have in common—the YES Festival, Culture Day, the Screen Machine—is funding from Creative Scotland, alongside a host of other funders and supporters, regional, national and international.
in these times of spending cuts and tightened family budgets, cultural junkies like me, for whom the value of such activities is self-evident, nonetheless need to make a strong case for the wider impact and benefit of such events and services. Benefits, that is, not only for those who take part in them, and for those who enjoy them, but also for those who only hear or read about them, and for those running businesses who might see some indirect benefit from them. Like, for example, the butcher in Forres who was delighted with Culture Day, because he always sells more meat when ‘there’s something happening in the High Street’.
Worshipped any good books lately? I have. And if ‘worshipped’ sounds a bit extreme, perhaps even sacrilegious, how else would you approach a book which has survived, largely intact, for 1300 years, including evading Viking raids, being taken on lengthy peregrinations across the North of England, and even, according to one popular legend, emerging unscathed from complete immersion in the North Sea? I’m referring, of course, to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the centrepiece—until the end of September—of a superb exhibition in the Palace Green Library of the University of Durham.
We had taken a flat in Alnwick for the week, with a London-based friend who is an expert in museums management, and our main reason for being in the North East was to visit this exhibition. So on a day that can only be described as Mediterranean, we arrived in a Durham that can rarely, if ever, have looked more sunny, exotic and welcoming. I felt some trepidation about this excursion. How do you build an entire exhibition around a book of which, unavoidably, only one page can be seen at any one time? Indeed, I understand that only two different pages of the Gospels in total are being displayed during the entire three month run of the exhibition. I needn’t have worried. As we all agreed—including our museums specialist friend—this was a superb and unforgettable experience.
First of all, it was a model of visitor management. We had booked timed tickets for 13.30. Arriving a few minutes before our time, we could join the rest of our cohort seated in the sun, while cheery stewards encouraged us that ‘we’ll get you in shortly’. With the same friendliness and courtesy we were gently ‘processed’ through the entrance stages but, once inside the exhibition proper, we were left to ourselves and could stay as long as we liked. The results of all this attention to detail were that at no time did we feel crowded, or that we had to move along without allowing enough time for a particular display, and then, when we finally entered the inner sanctum that housed the Gospels, the three of us were able to view the book itself for as long as we wished, without a queue forming behind us.
All of which would have been of little benefit had the exhibition itself not been a triumph of the combined skills of curation, display and interpretation. Unobtrusively, almost subliminally, we were given a very clear and integrated understanding of the political, historical, religious, social and artistic context for the Gospels. We came to understand why the Gospels had been made, where they were made, when they were made, and how they were made. We explored the fusion they represent of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon artistic forms, the world of the book in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, and the tensions between the Celtic and Roman churches that formed the background to the book’s production. Nothing was ‘dumbed down’—children were offered a host of ways of getting involved in a completely separate space, which also housed a meticulous account of how the book was physically produced. I doubt if anything in the exhibition could have troubled a believer, but nor was there the slightest hint of sanctimoniousness.
Particularly impressive was the use of video technology. In the ante-room to that which housed the actual Gospels there were two giant video displays drawing on images of every page in the Gospels, and blowing up the illuminated pages in sequence at a scale that left you breathless with wonder at the skill of Eadfrith, the monk and bishop who is credited with both copying and illuminating the Gospels. Then, in the separate display at the end, there were several PCs where you could explore each page in similar detail at your leisure.
The third thing that impressed us was the range of people visiting the exhibition. Folk in the North East are very proud of the Gospels, and that was demonstrated by the diversity of ages and social backgrounds of those going round the exhibition with us. This was a popular exhibition, without needing to be populist. I understand there is a campaign to locate the Gospels permanently in the North East, resisted by the British Library. It’s a campaign that deserves to succeed.
So, when I finally found myself standing in front of the book itself, able to view closely that one visible page, what did I feel? Awe, of course. Awe at its survival, at its incredible artistry and technical achievement, and awe also at the evidence it provides (as had the rest of the exhibition) of the richness of Northumbrian culture in the 8th century. Pace Lord Howell, the North East was no more culturally ‘desolate’ 1300 years ago than it is today.
And awe, indeed, was what we felt throughout our week based in Alnwick—awe at the magnificence of Durham Cathedral (despite misguided attempts at modern and community art which threatened to diminish that glory), awe at the power and strength of the immense medieval strongholds of Warkworth, Bamburgh and Alnwick, and at the 19th century industrial might that transformed all three of these great castles, and led to Lord Armstrong building the fantasy that is Cragside, awe even at the ambition that has led to the creation, in the last decade, of the wonder that is The Alnwick Garden.
And at all these locations we found hundreds, no, thousands of local people enjoying their heritage, often with a very well-informed perspective. At the Alnwick Garden we experienced a glimpse of the ‘peaceable kingdom’, as hundreds of families—and especially young children—experienced what I can only describe as ‘joy unconfined’ among the marvels that the Garden offers.
In many ways the Lindisfarne Gospels symbolise unity—embracing both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic artistic tropes, and also two languages and two scripts, thanks to the translation in Old English which the priest Aldred added to the text 250 years after Eadfrith’s work. The Gospels speak of a time when Britain, no matter how fractured politically by warring kingdoms and Viking incursions, shared a culture of belief, literacy and artistic creation. Judith is a Geordie. The Lindisfarne Gospels, and the architectural wonders of Northumberland, are part of the heritage she grew up with. But I also feel they’re part of my heritage. If independence comes next year, how will that change my feeling of a shared heritage? I wish I could tell.
(all photographs: Judith Livingston)