Kevin Keegan – My Life in Football


Kevin Keegan managed Manchester City for four years, including one fantastic campaign in in 2001-2, when they were promoted to the Premier League. Those years take up two chapters in this autobiography.

I started with the City years because I wanted to know why things had got so bad at the club in the 90s and noughties, and how Keegan had managed to turn things around. He said the drinking culture was the key, and he sold one of the club’s most skilful players, Mark Kennedy, to send a message to the team about the booze.

I remember taking my son to watch City train in the late 90s. Michael Brown wagged his hand as he was leaving the ground in what looked like an offer to share a pint with another player. Then Brown stepped into his Mercedes Coupé and drove off. He was a good player but I think he underachieved in his career, and wonder whether the drinking culture was the reason.

That same day a muscular young Shaun Wright-Phillips ambled back from the pitches about an hour after the rest. He was tiny and looked like a school boy with  freakishly large calf muscles. I guess he must have been nearly 19 at the time. Maybe that extra training was why he went on to play for England, and was sold to Chelsea for £21 million, whilst Brown moved to Sheffield United for just £400,000.

Keegan describes the troubles he had over alcohol with several players, including Richard Donne, who needed professional help, but triumphed and went on to win player of the season on several occasions. Keegan bumped into Steve Howey, Jeff Whitley and others at a bar in Hale in his early days at the club, and describes his anger at their unprofessional behaviour and attitude.

He mentions Nicky Weaver too, and I wondered about Michael Johnson, a brilliant revelation in the few games he played with us, who found the pressure too much and gave up football completely. A sad loss.

Joey Barton was another who Keegan came across in this vein, and it was interesting to hear about his later  encounters with Joey when Keegan was managing Newcastle United, and Barton was imprisoned for assault. Joey was a youth team player for City who achieved a lot but there were a series of incidents involving violence, and seemingly fuelled by drink.

I used to enjoy following the fortunes of City’s youth team before the advent of the Gulf money. In those years before the cash arrived you could have made a strong team of former academy graduates, and it was always interesting to see how they progressed, and sad to see their occasional demise. Below I’ve listed some from the pre-Gulf years, with the teams they represented.

One of the key characters in the promotion year, 2001-2002, when City scored a record 108 goals, was Ali Benarbia. He was a genius with a football, and a joy to watch. At the time it was tempting to put the discovery of Benarbia down to Keegan’s knowledge and expertise, but apparently it was a fluke and Keegan is honest enough to admit this. In fact honesty is the key to his character, and to this book. There are few holds barred.

In the end Keegan left City because he disagreed with the approach taken by David Bernstein, and later with directors Ward and Makin, who were all quite conservative in their approach to the transfer market. This rings true. There were a few frustrating years when the club stumbled along with a mixed bag of players. But with Leeds United £100 million in debt in 2004, and Portsmouth going bankrupt, it was sensible. Maybe financial prudence helped tip the balance when first Thaksin and then Abu Dhabi invested in the club.

For me the most interesting sections of this book apart from City concerned Keegan’s time in charge of England, and the controversial period when he returned to manage Newcastle United a second time. And of course the Ferguson rant.

Keegan’s account of his time as England manager is brief. He reiterates what he said at the time, that it was a step too far, and that he was not quite good enough. But he doesn’t go into details about exactly what he was getting wrong – tactics, training, personnel – and I get the impression he is covering up to some extent for the players. The free kick conceded against Germany, and scored by Did Hamann, when England were slow and unprofessional in organising the defence was surely the players’ fault alone.

In the end it is the FA that Keegan criticises most, confirming their reputation as upper class twits, and amateurs in a professional world. It’s Keegan’s encounters with managers and bosses that seem to have given his life direction, from the beloved and inspirational Shankly through to Wise and Jimenez at Newcastle. It’s almost as if he can’t put his scorn for those two into strong enough words!

The section on Mike Ashley and Keegan’s time at Newcastle is interesting because now, in 2019, it is still so relevant. Benitez has secured Newcastle United’s premiership status for another year despite a lack of funds, and Ashley is still a controversial figure. With his purchase of House of Fraser, and the debacle of Debenhams he is in the public eye, and to some extent an emblem of the failure neoliberal economics. Will he ever fund the club for success? Will he sell? Who knows.

In the end it does seem that in those early years of ownership it was Ashley’s naivety and inexperience that led to the crisis. That was news to me. I had seen him as a much more malevolent force.

Of course Liverpool fans will will enjoy the part of the book about Keegan’s time at Anfield, but that was a bit predictable for me, a typical sporting tale of success.

Kevin Keegan, My Life in Football is well written by Daniel Taylor, chief football correspondent at The Guardian and winner of all kinds of awards. It’s hard to write a book like this, about a lifetime’s achievement in sport, without sounding either complacent or arrogant, but mostly between them they avoid those pitfalls.

There are moments of self-justification though, and the Ferguson rant gets quite a lot. You should read it and see what you think.

Keegan was always one for going his own way. He was not a footballing prodigy, partly because of his size. English football was always dominated by the biggest boys in the class in those days. That was the problem. They were the biggest, but not always the brightest, and good football is like chess. Look at Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino. There’s brawn with the last two but it’s brain that all three have in common.

But Keegan worked hard. He bulked up running up and down the stands at Scunthorpe, and that gave him the muscle he needed to succeed. He left Liverpool FC and Hamburg at times when many would have hung around and milked the money and the fame. If the end of his career was a disappointment at club level, it seems that it was because his wife made him turn down a move to an Italian club because of a spate of kidnappings. Good for him I say.

Southampton was probably a disappointment professionally, but Newcastle United as a player led to Newcastle United as a manager and it seems that those were amongst the best years of Keegan’s life.

GK      Kasper Schmeichel                               Manchester City, Leicester City, Denmark

RB     Tyrone Mears                                         Burnley, West Ham

CB     Micah Richards                                      Manchester City, England

CB     Nedum Onouha                                     Manchester City, Sunderland, QPR

LB     Stephen Jordan                                      Manchester City, Burnley

RM   Shaun Wright-Phillips                        Manchester City, Chelsea, England

CM   Glenn Whelan                                        Sheffield United, Stoke, Eire

CM   Joey Barton                                             Newcastle, QPR, Glasgow Rangers, Burnley

LM   Stephen Ireland                                     Manchester City, Aston Villa, Stoke, Eire

RW   Stephen Elliott                                       Sunderland

CF    Daniel Sturridge                                     Chelsea, Bolton, Liverpool, England


Michael Brown                                              Manchester City, Sheffield United, Spurs, Fulham

Dickson Etuhu                                               Fulham

Willo Flood                                                    Manchester City, Celtic, Middlesborough

Shaleum Logan                                             Aberdeen

Adam Clayton                                               Middlesborough

Michael Johnson                                          Manchester City


Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens


A drowned man is found floating in the Thames, and violent thieves and miscreants retrieve the body, but not before stealing his purse. These are cruel and dishonest men, not afraid to commit violence and speak Cockney.

They have beautiful daughters with flowing black hair and limitless Christian virtues. It’s a miracle! They’ve been brought up in mud and sewage on the banks of the Thames, and completely lack education. But virtue is an essence, it’s inbred. All Dickens’ heroes possess it in abundance. His villains belong to the other side of the coin. They are died-in-the-wool.

Dickens literally throws you in at the deep end in Our Mutual Friend, when the hero drowns without dying before the novel has really begun. The premise is that one drowned man can be three different people, and keep it a secret. The theme is Cinderella. Now Princess, what do you want? True love or the money? The drowned man, a pauper, asks the princess to marry him, gets rebuffed, and goes away. Is that the end? Course not.

A dawning revelation. Cinderella sees the truth, that money corrupts. She puts her ragged dresses back on and marries the drowned man. He may be poor, but at least he’s honest. (Well he’s been pretending to be someone else for half the book, but let’s not strain gnats here.)

There are two Cinders. A plot and a sub-plot. How Shakespearean. The second Cinders’ admirer nearly drowns. But she’s a river woman, and she saves him.

What? There are two lovers, and both of them nearly drown? 

Yes. Coincidence, eh?

But the second drowned man’s a lawyer, and he didn’t want to marry his dark haired beauty because she was lower class. But she’s saved his life now, and when he’s dying on his hospital bed he proposes. Happy ever after.

Of course this is Dickens, so there’s more, oh so much more.

There’s the Golden Dustman, and he’s poor, but there’s an inheritance, so now he’s rich. And does money spoil him? Well maybe. It seems like it. Wait till the end….

But that’s … let me see…. Great Expectations?!

Well, sort of.

And there’s a poor woman who won’t go into the workhouse, because they treat ’em so bad in there, and she’s an honest woman anyway and won’t be taking no one’s charity.

But we know that already, don’t we, it’s Oliver isn’t it?

And illuminated by the golden rays of the dustman are the ne’r do wells. Some are posh gits, others impoverished cripples. But each and every one of ’em’s ready to rip off the poor old dustman, so there’s plots galore and characters pouring out of the margins of the book.

That’s Dickens at his best really, the comic maelstrom of Victorian England. There’s lots to read in this book, and it’s great if you’re a fan.

It’s harsh actually, to say the characters are good or bad, and that there’s nothing in between. The Princess gets reformed, and the second drowned man too. But not really. You don’t live the change when you read Dickens. It’s like stepping from a black tile to a white tile. There’s no emotional investment, no psychological transition. For me there’s only one character who makes a moral choice I can believe in. The evil Mrs Lammle pays dearly for her moment of compassion for Georgiana Podsnap.

Dickens is a crazy writer, he’s experimental and radical. There’s no consistent narrative voice. When the two main characters get married it’s told from the point of view of a peg legged seaman who follows them to the church.  What’s that all about? And there’s the posh dinners where they’re all best friends, but no one knows who anyone is, and none of them are real anyway, just ciphers.

It all adds interest I suppose, but it’s confusing too, and there’s no real heart to the story. It revolves around that one man,  Our Mutual Friend? But who is he, and can you believe in him? He’s everywhere in this book, but really he’s just a void, an empty pot, a foil.

In the end I didn’t really care what happened, to be frank. I’m glad we’ve got Dickens. For goodness sake we need him now. Let’s face it he’s describing the society the Conservative party are aiming for. Dickens’ London – it’s Farage’s dream. A compass bearing for the right wing.

No. We need a Dickens right now, a popular writer who cares for people and promotes Christian values and compassion. Someone who relentlessly exposes the weaknesses and wickedness in human hearts and political institutions. (And what’s more political than the workhouse?)

Can we have a volunteer, now, please? Someone? Yes?

Our Country’s Good – Tobacco Factory Bristol


Last night we went to a preview of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good at the Tobacco Factory theatre in Bristol.

Based on The Playmaker, a novel by Thomas Kennealy it tells the story of the first British settlement in Australia. It’s a story of Empire, prejudice, greed and snobbery. Arthur Phillip, the liberal governor of Sydney, is keen to give the convicts the chance to show they are more than the scum of the earth by allowing them to collaborate in a performance of Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer.

But snobbish English voices are less sympathetic to the convicts, condemning them as corrupted and beyond redemption. There are discussions involving Rousseau and his Romantic views of human innocence. In the end the play is performed and the convicts show they can love others, and have compassion. They do have dreams of bettering themselves, of making a life in Australia, or of returning home to Devon. They are indeed redeemable. And we see love between soldiers and convicts that transcends the boundaries of class and presents all men as equal.

It’s an entertaining and humane play with views I approve of, and a play I have seen before:

Our Country’s Good – National Theatre 2015

But this performance was a mixed bag. I was impressed by Heather Williams who played Bottom in A Midsummer NIght’s Dream earlier this year:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Tobacco Factory, Bristol

There were some amusing similarities between her enthusiasm for a decent part in the Farquhar, and Bottom’s approach to the mechanicals’ play. She was very funny in both roles. The scenes where the convicts rehearsed the play were amusing too, satirising Garrick’s theatre, and our human need for self-glorification and attention.

There was little to criticise about the actors. I noticed John Wisehammer more this time – an educated, Jewish convict whose very presence denied the claims that the convicts were unteachable. Ketch Freeman, the hangman, explored ambiguous views about his profession. Ralph Clark seemed a little boring, but he is anyway – prudish and hypocritical, in the end taking sexual advantage of his role as an officer despite his earlier, high minded pretence.

Dan Wheeler took three parts convincingly, using Irish and Scottish accents, and the scenes involving the two Scottish soldiers, of which he was one, were well done, though Jemmy Campbell was not quite as stunningly inarticulate as he seems in the play and as he was presented in the National Theatre production.

As Captain Watkin Tench, Kim Heron’s upper class accent was a little exaggerated. Is there a hint – Watkin – that he is Welsh, not almost Etonian as presented here! Again I didn’t quite get why Liz Morden was so reluctant to deny she had stolen the rations. The London production made a big thing of that or at least I found the focus on betrayal more obvious. But Liz had her back to me during the crucial scene, which made it harder to appreciate.

I wondered if Tench’s role had been cut. He did not appear after the interval, and this made it harder to make the connection between his view, that the convicts could not be redeemed, and the climax where in fact they were. Here after the interval the only criticism of Clark and Phillip’s humane approach was represented by the two Scots officers. But they seemed pointlessly violent and cruel, not really interested in whether redemption was possible, just happy to throw their weight around. It made the theme harder to grasp.

Another key point in the play is the impact the landing had on the Aborigines. The National Theatre placed an actor on stage who embodied and dramatised the impact on the native population. His painted nakedness was a strong visual contrast with the red uniforms of the British Officers. Here it was done with disembodied voices over the loudspeaker. The aborigines spoke in a native language and English. The references to dream time were clear, if vague, linking to Dabby Bryant’s dreams of Devon. But the disembodied voices, whilst spooky and atmospheric, were more confusing and less direct.

So not the usual standard from this theatre company, but still an enjoyable evening.



Hearing Secret Harmonies – Anthony Powell


Powell puts his finger on the essence of the late sixties in this last volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. The joyous rebellion of the mid sixties had given way to a much nastier sense of abandonment by the end of the decade. The contrasting festivals of Monterey and Altamont summed up the change in mood. Monterey was part of the 1967 summer of love, but the Altamont festival in December 69 was ruined by the violent death of a teenage spectator within twenty feet of the stage where the Rolling Stones were playing.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies the boys marooned on the island dance and celebrate the killing of a pig. Simon, the visionary, stumbles into the group and is slaughtered when they reenact the pig’s death. The death at Altamont has echoes of Simon’s death. Without rules there is chaos, and by 1970 the dream of freedom had gone sour. The ironically titled final volume Hearing Secret Harmonies reflects this. It describes the final tragi-comic sequences of Widmerpool’s life.

Nick meets a group of hippies on the way to a stone age monument which they claim has mystic powers. We meet Scorpio Murtlock, the charismatic and domineering leader of the group. There are magical rites and mystical behaviours that bring to mind Dr Trelawney from earlier volumes. Fiona Cutts, Nick’s niece, is part of the commune.

Widmerpool has become chancellor of a new university. He is unkempt, dirty and untidy in his dress, and has taken the side of the rebellious students of the time. He rejects all rules and regulations, all of society’s norms. Two students throw paint over him at a university ceremony and he praises them for their daring, and for challenging authority. Powell implies he is naive, riding the currents of the 60s counterculture, his judgement clouded by cranky new fangled modern ideas.

Nick is now a member of the awarding panel for the Donners Memorial Prize given for biographies of modern men of influence; Widmerpool holds the purse strings for this award as he used to work for Donners. This year they are short of qualifying biographies. Eventually the prize is awarded to Gwinnet for his biography of X Trapnel. There is some doubt whether Widmerpool will attend the prize giving, as his wife was Gwinnet’s lover.  Powell even hints that she might have killed herself to pander to Gwinnet’s interest in necrophilia!! Could he face the shame?

But Widmerpool does turn up. At the ceremony he gives a long and tedious speech about the bourgeois nature of sexual taboos. Later his interest in alternative lifestyles leads him to Murtlock. Widmerpool invites Murtlock’s commune to live at his country property, and falls under his control, but Fiona escapes and marries Gwinnett.

Sometime later there is a family wedding. Bored and restless Nick wanders outside where he sees Widmerpool, dressed in a blue robe, and leading members of the commune on a run. There are more, deliberate echoes of Dr Trelawney, who Nick witnessed leading similar runs when he was a child. Murtlock uses the same pantheistic greeting, and has similar new age views.

One of the runners is Bithel, the drunken old fool who was such a comic character in the war years. He is still drinking, and still a figure of fun. Widmerpool had Bithel sacked from the army for drunkenness, and Murtlock has insisted that Widmerpool carry out penances for this. You get the sense that Murtlock is keeping Bithel around just so he can punish Widmerpoool, who is a pathetic and broken figure by now, filled with guilt and terrified of  Murtlock.

Throughout there have been intimations that Widmerpool had a masochistic streak, and these recur here. Finally Widmerpool dies in mysterious circumstances as a result of his involvement with this group.

Once again Powell entertains and amuses. Glad to have finished this marathon now though.




Temporary Kings – Anthony Powell


Temporary Kings sees Powell develop his attack on left wing politicians in the persona of Labour MP Widmerpool and his wife Pamela Flitton, by making a series of not very subtle hints about their deviant sexual practices.

Thematically the novel revolves around an imaginary painting of Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo, which is supposed to be on the ceiling of a palace in Venice. Candaules, the King of Lydia, boasting of the beauty of his wife, invites his general, Gyges, to observe her naked, and possibly to observe their lovemaking. This last seems to depend on the version of the myth you are reading.

Powell implies that the Widmerpools take part in similar sexual practices. At the same time he gives further hints about Pamela’s frigidity, and about the strange and unsatisfactory state of the Widmerpools’ relationship. These criticisms are an attack on the MP’s virility and morality, not his ideas. Powell laughs at him, questions whether he is a man, but has nothing actually to say about Widmerpool’s socialist policies.

In fact we do not see much of Widmerpool in this volume. He is condemned mostly in absentia by the behaviour of his wife. There are some intimations that he is involved as a go-between with eastern European communist regimes, and from his enemy, Farebrother, there are suggestions that he is a spy. This brings his political reputation into question in parliament, but the details are never revealed, and he is never prosecuted.

Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn have both suffered from these kind of attacks, and Ed Miliband was attacked in the right wing press simply for having a father born abroad. In that respect these sorts of controversies seem par for the course for left wing politicians in the British press.

Widmerpool was a fellow traveller, naive and a bit of a fool, but his claim that he was merely attempting to sow harmony between nations has a ring of truth. The political issue is marginal though, vague and indeterminate. It is only hinted at in a typical Powell dialogue, in which the truth is obfuscated by its gossipy quality and the second and sometimes third hand nature of the sources within the fiction. There are no actual political ideas or issues discussed.

It all comes down to the person, and throughout this 12 volume enterprise Widmerpool, quite unsubtly, has been lampooned and ridiculed. Powell could have just as easily made him an avaricious and lewd Tory MP – there are enough examples in history from this period and later – but his political agenda is clear.

This volume opens at a literary conference in Venice where Nick meets Gwinnet, an American scholar who wants to write a biography of the author X Trapnel. By coincidence Pamela Widmerpool, Trapnel’s former lover, is also in Venice, where she is shacked up with an American film mogul called Glober. Nick is able to introduce them. The coincidences become almost surreal, and certainly quite laughable when the same day Odo Stevens arrives in Venice on a leisure cruise. He is now married to Rosie Manasch, a former rival of Pamela for Odo’s love.

In a final series of coincidences, Nick’s old boss from his art publishing days, Daniel Tokenhouse, is now living in Venice, painting unsuccessfully in a variety of styles and currently imitating the Soviet realists. Nick meets him and they go for lunch, where, coincidentally they meet Glober and Pamela.

They return to Tokenhouse’s flat to look at his paintings. The style of the paintings reveals Tokenhouse’s political leanings. These are condemned not on the basis of the political ideas themselves, but because of the naive and amateurish hand of the painter. Glober agrees to buy a painting, almost as a joke, saying he will put it with his collection of primitives. At that moment, again coincidentally, Widmerpool arrives at Tokenhouse’s flat. The two have mysterious acquaintances in common from Eastern Europe and meet in Venice occasionally but this time the meeting has been cancelled.

Back in England, Gwinnet is obsessed with stepping into the shoes of X Trapnel so he can write his biography, and so goes to live and drink in Trapnel’s old haunts. He embarks on a love affair with Pamela for the same reason. She is found naked in the middle of the night at Bagshaw’s family house, where Gwinnet is living. Realising how unpredictable and dangerous Pamela is, Gwinnet distances himself from her, literally.

There is a charitable event at which Moreland is conducting an opera. This allows the cast of the novel to gather together again. At the end of the party there are fireworks when Pamela confronts Glober who is with a new lover. Pamela pointedly explains to the assembled company that Glober is in the habit of snipping a few pubic hairs from the women that he has slept with, and that he has used these to fill a cushion. It’s quite a shocking, but very funny moment.

Then we learn that a renowned left wing French writer – Ferrand-Sénéschal – died whilst in bed with Pamela, and that Widmerpool was there, observing their love making. Portraying Ferrand-Sénéschal in this way is another example of Powell condemning left wing politicians for their sexual proclivities, not their politics. Anyone who lived through John Major’s government, or like Powell himself, lived through the Profumo affair, would realise how partisan this approach is.

Later Pamela commits suicide by taking an overdose. Finally Nick bumps into an unrepentant Widmerpool on his way to the House of Lords.

You can tell that this novel was published after the Lady Chatterley trial. Powell is much more open about the sexual peccadilloes of his characters. He never writes about the experience of sex, or indeed really about love, But he uses sex as a stick with which to beat his characters, a simple yardstick of their moral probity.

All in all I have to say that I’m really glad I never met the man. He tells a good story, and can make you laugh, but these novels breathe privilege and noblesse oblige. I imagine he was quite a snob. That certainly comes through in his treatment of Widmerpool, and in earlier novels his treatment of Quiggins.

Tobacco Factory Theatre Bristol – A Midsummer Night’s Dream


The wit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in the dialogue. Even the visual jokes are written down, and this production is probably the funniest I have seen because the actors nail those comic elements almost perfectly. They have clearly read the text and squeezed out every detail, every joke, visual or otherwise. Bottom opens his box and produces a range of crazy wigs. Flute clearly does have a beard coming, the man in the moon, the dog, the lantern and the wall are all funny in this production.

The verbal humour is there too. The crass verse spoken by Bottom as Pyramus, the mechanicals’ ignorance of this well known classical story, their discussions about how not to frighten the ladies, the whole idea of these hempen homespuns putting on a play for sophisticated noble folk – almost without exception these elements are well done.

There were some wrinkles. Quince reads his Prologue badly, so when Lysander says:

He hath rid his prologue like a rough colt; he knows
not the stop

it almost works. But they could have shown more clearly that Quince can’t pause in the right place, can’t get the Prologue to make sense. The roaring of the lion might have been funnier too. But I’m not going to quibble. The verse of the Pyramus and Thisbe scene is presented in all its dire glory: his eyes were green as leeks! And their deaths were a hoot.

The production enhances all this by introducing a range of visual jokes that build on the text. The wall was exceptional in this respect, as was the final death scene of Pyramus and Thisbe. The mechanicals were brought to life by comic actors who were also able to play the more serious roles of the lovers. It was very well done.

The mechanicals are great fun and the heart of this play, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense too. It’s not just a funny story, but one that ends happily when Theseus allows the four lovers to marry. Only Egeus is disappointed as his patriarchal rights are lost.

Meanwhile, the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, promised at the start of the play, confirms the happy ending, and the battle between Oberon and Titania affecting the human world is resolved happily too, as she comes to her senses:

My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamour’d of an ass.

At the beginning Egeus, insisting on his privileges as a father, disrupts the harmony as do the mistaken lovers. But the world is brought back to harmony by male authority – the magic of Oberon in the woods and the authority of Theseus, who overrules Egeus and allows love to flourish.

Modern productions, influenced by gender politics tend to balk at this. They link Egeus, Theseus and Oberon, and focus on male domination. These feminist interpretations show Hippolyta in rebellion and Hermia and Titania as victims.

Theseus says of Hippolyta that he won her love, but Shakespeare does not seem particularly interested in this relationship.The text itself gives no indication either way about her feelings. It’s just a formal arrangement, a political relationship, as royal weddings can be! But in this production she is stroppy and angry from the start, and the play finishes with a confusing act of rebellion that abandons the conventional happy ending. It’s a  modern interpretation, like Russell T Davies’ television version in which Hippolyta is in chains throughout.

MSNDream Russell T Davies 2016

If you are a traditionalist you might not like this approach, though I suppose you could argue that Shakespeare is a chameleon, always changing his colours to match the age.

In this performance the actors take on multiple roles. Hippolyta is played by the same actor as Titania, Theseus by the actor who plays Oberon. This makes sense because the war in the fairy world reflects the battle of the sexes that Theseus has won in Athens by taking the Amazon queen a prisoner. For a moment, in the world of the fairies, the woman is in control. But it leads to disaster, as the summer weather deteriorates into storms, destroying the farmers’ crops, and Titania herself falls in love with an ass.

If you read it like this, then women are demeaned. Only when Theseus and Oberon take control is the world in harmony. But Shakespeare wrote that. Turning Hippolyta into an angry and rebellious bride is a post hoc modern addition: there is no textual evidence for it. Here the changed ending, and the interpretation of Hippolyta as a rebellious prisoner seemed arbitrary and out of place, a sop to modern sensitivities and a denial of the comic genre. You might as well have Bottom complaining about the patronising behaviour of the toffs watching his play.

The feminist approach affects other aspects of this production. Oberon is a bit of a thug, and reminded me of a brutal version of Phil Tufnell. He was not so much Lord of the Fairies as Cockney of the Walk. I suppose there is room for this interpretation of Oberon. His actions towards Titania are selfish, cruel and manipulative. But he chides Puck for his mistakes, and finally restores the harmony in nature that has been destroyed by Titania’s refusal to obey him!!

Feminist issues such as reversing gender stereotypes intrude into the humorous treatment of the fairy world too. Titania, lying in an enamel bath, is wheeled in on a mobile jack no doubt borrowed from a local garage. The fairies, far from being light on their feet and delicate, are lumpen men incapable of elegance. It’s very funny and links the fairies with the mechanicals, stereotyping men as stupid oafs as if in revenge for Shakespeare’s own crimes on the gender front.

There are some elements of beauty in the fairy world. Puck sings very well, and the famous speech that Oberon makes to him is delivered quite well in the performance I saw, which was a preview:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;

All of this and I have not even mentioned that here Lysander is played by a woman, and Helen has become the man Helenus. In the end the happy couples are paired to a lover of the same gender, not the opposite.

You could argue that this is letting modern morality or fashion intrude too far into Shakespeare. Perhaps, but in fact it made it much easier to identify these lovers. Usually they are ciphers, indistinguishable and interchangeable. Somehow messing about with their gender made the distinctions clearer.

Bristol’s Tobacco Factory is my favourite theatrical venue. It’s on the top floor of an old warehouse, and quite small, so you are never far from the action.

There have been some changes recently. The seats are numbered, and a bit more comfortable, which detracts from the laid back vibe the place used to have. The bar is a bit smarter now too. But it’s still a great place to see a play.

The Tobacco Factory Theatre Company used to present the two plays each spring. But this spring’s offerings are from a new group, the Factory Theatre company. We used to enjoy spotting the same old actors playing play minor parts from Roman guards to clowns and Tudor soldiers. Several regularly took major roles, alongside visiting actors. All these have been replaced by a new younger cast.

If this first play is typical of what they will produce, we have a lot of fun and entertainment to look forward to in Bristol.

Next up is Our Country’s Good. I can’t wait.

Books do Furnish a Room – Anthony Powell

Miranda Richardson as Pamela Flitton in the TV adaptation

Books Do Furnish a Room is the tenth volume of Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time, and the first set after the second world war.

Back on Civvy Street Nick is researching a biography of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s a suitable topic deliberately chosen by Powell to reflect Nick’s state of mind, and the depressed and depressing state of post war England.

Nick is on the fringes of the literary world, and involved in the publication of a new magazine entitled Fission. Characters from earlier in the series write for the magazine, including Quiggins, and Widmerpool, who is by now a labour MP. It is funded by Erridge, who dies before publication of the first issue. New characters are also involved with the project, including researcher Ada Leitwardine, novelist X Trapnel, and Bagshaw the editor, who is a journalistic hack. Odo Stevens makes a return, with an account of his wartime exploits written for the same publisher.

But the main focus of this novel is Widmerpool. He is always the butt of jokes in A Dance to the Music of Time, usually at the climactic part or the denouement of each novel. The whole series opens with an incredibly unflattering description of him as a schoolboy. Powell describes a series of humiliating events and explains how Widmerpool was bullied and scorned by Nick and his pals at that time.

In later episodes Widmerpool makes crass errors of judgement, paying for and covering up a mistress’s abortion, and failing as a husband and lover. He is dominated by an overbearing mother and succeeds in his career only by being oblivious to others’ needs, completely insensitive to their feelings, and prioritising bureaucracy over humanity.

Widmerpool makes few political comments during the novel, but is portrayed as a fellow traveller, ridiculed when he returns from a visit to Eastern Europe to declare, obviously incorrectly, that there is no such thing as the Iron Curtain.

Widmerpool’s choice of wife, the beautiful Pamela Flitton, also reflects badly on him. She has not changed from the earlier novels, and shows her selfishness and cruelty at Erridge’s funeral where she embarrasses Widmerpool publicly. She seems to love to taunt the men she has relationships with. Widmerpool is not able to control her, but seems intent on keeping the relationship going. It seems she is a trophy bride, used to confirm his virility.

Pamela runs off with the impecunious novelist X Trapnel to live in a run down flat. In a coincidence typical of Powell, Nick happens to be at Trapnel’s flat when Widmerpool arrives to confront Pamela. Later Nick is also there when she leaves Trapnel. Trapnel is afraid to return to the flat alone after an argument, and enlists the support of Nick and another friend to give him courage. What a dragon she is!

Spoiler alert!!

By the time Trapnel gets to the flat Pamela is gone. She has once again taken with her the Modigliani she so treasures. More controversially and quite cruelly, she has thrown the only manuscript of Trapnel’s novel into the canal!

Powell rarely comments on the sexuality of his characters, but he breaks this rule in describing Pamela. Trapnel is infatuated with her but says making love to her is like making love to a board. He passes on to Nick Pamela’s description of her sexual relationship with Widmerpool, who does not come out of it well. Their marriage must have been hell.

The novel ends back at Nick’s old school where he has gone to register his son. He meets Le Bas. In his eighties Le Bas is still the victim of children’s pranks. Widmerpool is there too, hanging around. He is back with Pamela who has an “assignation” with a young man at the school, possibly a pupil. Widmerpool is instructed to wait outside for an indefinite time until she is ready to return.

The intimations here are obvious. To be frank it is a bit crass, and again coincidence plays such a significant part in the meeting that some literary critics such as Powell’s enemy and rival FR Leavis would dismiss the event out of hand.

Powell embodies leftwing politicians and thinkers in disreputable, foolish and cruel characters to make political points. Choosing to make Widmerpool a Labour MP is an example of this. His criticism of Quiggins throughout the series also underlines Powell’s essentially Conservative political allegiances.

Nevertheless he continues to entertain with his soap like characters and plot lines and the dialogue rarely fails to be amusing and to ring true.