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)
Living in the Highlands, there’s very little that we miss about the Central Belt, except for the chance to see major art exhibitions. The team at Inverness Museum and Gallery often achieve wonders with their limited resources, but that doesn’t remove the need for a regular fix—usually in Edinburgh, as Glasgow has fallen badly behind ever since the magnificent MacLellan Galleries were mothballed.
One of the early tasks I was given on joining HI~Arts in 1994 was to write the brief for the very first formal feasibility study into creating a major gallery for the Highlands and Islands. I used to hope then that I’d see such a gallery open before I retired. Now it’s only the shifting ages for claiming the state pension, and the poor state of my personal pension, that are keeping that possibility even remotely open.
In the meantime Edinburgh can still offer some fantastic exhibition experiences, especially through the National Galleries and Museums. We always make sure we get down for the Festival exhibitions, so we were initially disappointed that, having to be in Edinburgh for a meeting last week, we were just too early for most of those blockbusters. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
In the first instance, this encouraged us to visit the kind of lesser display that can so easily get overlooked when the great crowd-pullers are open, Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch . Not the most stimulating of titles, perhaps, but this proved to be the kind of small but perfectly formed exhibition which, in just one room and some 25 small pictures, can be both a revelation and a source of intense pleasure. Frederic Church is known here (insofar as he’s known at all, that is), for the Scottish National Gallery’s epic Niagara Falls from the American Side but this exhibition showed his miniature side, and what an incredible eye and technique he had. The exhibition is on till April next year, so you’ve no excuse if you miss it! And it’s free!
And better still, on the way to see the Church exhibition, we stepped into the little hexagonal room on the ground floor of the National Gallery that is the permanent home for seven of the greatest paintings ever created—perhaps the greatest paintings in any collection in Scotland: Nicolas Poussin’s Seven Sacraments. Now I’ve known these paintings all my adult life, and had we been trying to fit in various exhausting major exhibitions on this trip, we’d hardly have spared the time to revisit them, which would have been a shame, as I found the experience very moving.
How can I persuade you of the true greatness of these paintings? It’s not an easy task. Unless you’re a fairly well briefed member of the Catholic Church, the subject matter is obscure, not to say recondite, and not immediately easy to relate to. Then, the paintings are now mostly very dark, due presumably to aging varnish and a certain amount of fading pigments, and so don’t make an immediate impression on the viewer. And, most significantly, these are supreme examples of French Classicism, contemporary with the plays of Racine, the music of Lully, and the first phase of building at Versailles—a style, a philosophy, a world, that are probably as far from contemporary taste as anything in the last half-millennium.
Even as an art history student I didn’t take readily to Poussin; in fact I think I graduated without really understanding his achievement. I was put off by the solemnity of his religious subjects and, paradoxically, by the frivolity of many of his mythological themes. It took a lot of looking, and some great exhibitions, including the Scottish National Gallery’s own landmark Cezanne and Poussin of 1990, to change my mind. And I clearly wasn’t alone in having this problem: researching this blog I was amused to find a 2009 Guardian article titled ‘Arts snobs can keep Poussin’.
Well, maybe I am an art snob, but my admiration for Poussin now goes well beyond the intellectual or the academic. I quite simply love his paintings, as profoundly as I love the music of Bach, or the poems of John Donne, to mention two other artists in other artforms who can be thought ‘difficult’. Let’s return to the Sacraments, and look at just one of them, Holy Eucharist.
Forget Leonardo, this is the ‘Last Supper’, not least because it makes such a concerted attempt to re-imagine the scene, starting with having the apostles, in a historically correct manner, reclining on couches on three sides of a table, rather than lined up all in a row. Yet there are still hurdles to overcome. Historically correct the scene may be in one sense, but hardly for a bunch of Galilee fishermen in an ‘upper room’. Christ at first sight seems too idealised, while too many of the apostles’ heads seem to have the rigidity of classical tragic masks. But set that to one side: look at how naturally everyone is posed, and look especially at their reactions. Jesus has obviously just announced ‘One of you will betray me’ and many of the apostles are caught literally with their mouths full, or with the next bite half way to their mouths. It has the vivid immediacy of a film still, an effect enhanced by the astonishing lighting from the central (and again archaeologically correct) hanging lamp, and especially by the figure of Judas, slipping out to the left.
But these elements are easy to describe. What’s much harder to convey is what makes Poussin really great—a pervasive and intense sense of human empathy that, curiously, is heightened, not diminished, by the classical manner, and a truly musical sense of form and structure. Goethe called architecture ‘frozen music’ but I think the phrase could equally be applied to Poussin—after all one of his most famous paintings is A Dance to the Music of Time!
So, the only way to ‘get’ Poussin, I’d argue, is to look, look, and look again, and keep coming back. The rewards repay the effort. And so the real problem with Poussin is that he demolishes two arguments that are increasingly gaining ground: that art should be easily (if not instantly) accessible, and that art, especially of this kind, is elitist and those who want to enjoy it should pay for their pleasure. Good art takes time, and that’s why galleries need to be free. And why we need a really good one in the Highlands!
© Robert Livingston
Redundancy has its compensations. On Wednesday afternoon the clouds at last parted and some real, bright, life-enhancing sun broke through. No longer confined to an office (albeit one from which I could see Ben Wyvis) I took myself off for a walk in Reelig Glen .
When we first moved to the area in the mid 90s the walks in Reelig Glen were unsignposted, and mostly known about by word of mouth. A few years later it became a designated Forestry Commission walk, with roadsigns and information panels. I ought to approve of the greater access but I’m afraid I miss that sense of it being a rather secret place, and, of course, as it’s now advertised, FCS have to ensure that it’s also safe, which has taken away some of the wildness and the (very mild!) sense of adventure. But it is still breathtakingly, throat-catchingly beautiful.
Reelig Glen was a possession of the Frasers for 500 years until sold to FCS in 1949, and it owes much of its present appearance to one member of the clan, James Baillie Fraser, who planted the gorge of the Reelig Burn in the 1850s with specimens of the exotic trees being brought back by Scottish planthunters, such as David Douglas, whose eponymous firs are among some of the most spectacular (and tallest) trees in the Glen today. The upper slopes of the woods are now in the care of the local Community Woodland group, and include a beech ‘cathedral’ that is profoundly impressive at all times of year.
‘Glory be to God for dappled things’ wrote Hopkins, and there were plenty of dappled things in Reelig last Wednesday. I love the Glen at this time, when everything is at its most lush, green and overgrown, and the afternoon sunlight really brought out all the different, dense layers of foliage, especially where a break in the canopy opened up views across the gorge to the opposite slopes.
The trouble with writing a weekly blog is that you’re always on the look-out for material, and so as I trudged the paths I was wondering how I could tie this open-air experience into a blog about culture. True, I did have a heart-stopping Helen Mirren/The Queen moment when a doe broke cover about 20 yards ahead of me and stood still for a few moments, as we carefully regarded each other, but that’s not quite fertile enough blog material.
So I thought about why I like Reelig so much, of all the many lovely walks in the vicinity of Kirkhill, and I decided it was all to do with complexity. I take an intense, immediate, sub-verbal pleasure in the extraordinarily dense prospects available round each corner of the walk: the foliage and branch patterns of a dozen different types of tree, the overlapping effect multiplied by the slopes, and then the thick ground cover of the undergrowth. This is an effect, of course, that can be equally powerful in wintertime, with the added contrast of bare branches against evergreens.
It is complexity, not chaos. There are no less than three underlying levels of order. First, there is the original planting of over 150 years ago, and that has created a scaffolding on which a flourishing ecosytem now operates. And of course FCS staff apply discreet nips and tucks to keep paths safe and clear, and picturesque vistas open. So there are patterns at work here which, with enough information, could explain exactly why that one particular branch has grown in that direction and taken that shape.
And thinking about this made me realise how much I respond to complexity in art and music. I love paintings like Altdorfer’s The Battle of Issus in which, reputedly, no-one has yet counted how many figures are depicted, or poor, mad, Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke , or, closer to the Reelig experience, the paintings of Jackson Pollock. And I’m always drawn to dense counterpoint, whether in Renaissance polyphony, the fugues of Bach, or a Mahler symphony.
I’m also fascinated by composers for whom conventional instruments just don’t offer enough complexity, such as Conlon Nancarrow who would painstakingly punch holes in player-piano paper rolls to create pieces that sound as if they’re being played by ten hands at one piano, or Pierre Boulez, who combined the resources of a modern symphony orchestra with a whole additional layer of electronic sound in works like ‘Repons’. Judith finds such music instills in her a sense of panic, and I’m sure that’s not an uncommon reaction, but I find it exhilarating.
I wonder how far this is a modern phenomenon. After all, until Capability Brown introduced the concept of the picturesque into the planned landscape, parks and gardens were rigorously formal and orderly and, if complex, were so in a geometrically definable way. And it took the Romantic movement, spurred by Burke’s essay on the Sublime, to find beauty in rugged and natural landscapes that, in previous generations, would only have instilled fear and repulsion. Have we adapted, culturally, to cope with the increasing complexity of our modern world, and even to enjoy it, or have our brains actually developed a new ability to process such complexity (in the way that London cab drivers have been shown to have physical changes in their brains as a result of learning ‘the Knowledge’)?
Either way, it means that the kneejerk reaction of the average TV producer, to reach for some ‘English pastoral’ music to overlay images of places like Reelig Glen, may be downright wrong, and the rich complexity that sees apparent chaos emerging out of a variety of pattern sources, might be better represented by something like Elliot Carter’s Variations for Orchestra !
© Robert Livingston