There's a moment in one of my all-time favourite comedies Young Frankenstein, when Friedrich Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is locked in a room alone with the monster he fully believes to be a vicious brute. He naturally fears for his life and all he can think on the spur of the moment to say is, "Hey there, good looking!"
The monster (Peter Boyle), with a forehead like the landing strip on an aircraft carrier and not exactly much of a 'looker', is completely thrown by the remark and looks over his own shoulder to see if someone else is standing behind him, who the good Doctor is talking to.
Sometimes being a writer feels just a little bit like this for me. It still surprises (but mostly just fills me with delight!) when folk I don't actually know, who I haven't had to bribe, blackmail, or pay large sums of money to, tell me how much they actually like one or other (or both) of my books.
Do they actually, honestly, really mean me?
Back at the end of August, Simone, writing a review on behalf of The Orchard Book Club, a group of self-confessed book adorers, left a review on the Goodreads site entitled I absolutely loved, loved loved this book! for Niedermayer & Hart. Simone had read the book on her Kindle. A couple of weeks back, Simone's friends ordered a copy of N & H from my website for her birthday and asked me to write a message in it for her - something that I was of course more than happy to do!
This afternoon, after completing my writing for the day, I checked (as I do every day) my emails, website, facebook page, tweets etc. Simone had sent me a tweet to say thanks for writing in her book, and another to say how much she couldn't stop stroking its lovely cover! See, I said the Orchard Book Club are a group of totally unabashed book adorers!
Anyway, this blog wishes Simone a very happy birthday and many, many, happy returns of the day!
And finally, I'd just like to say how grateful I am to all you avid readers out there who have taken the time and trouble to sit down and say what it is about either of my books they like. It not only means a very great deal to me personally, but good reviews always encourage renewed interest which in turn (hopefully) improves sales. If it weren't for people like you, my books, without the weight of a publishing house and publicity machine behind them, would have reached a tiny audience of mostly friends and family and by now would almost certainly have pretty much sunk without a trace.
If you haven't seen this short clay figure animation, made by my son Tom Johnson to help to launch Niedermayer & Hart ever before - then you're in for a little treat. Enjoy!
Mmm ... which inspires the least interest?
Before I start, let me just say how personally grateful I am for e-books. This method of publishing has enabled me to reach a far wider audience than would otherwise have been possible. However, I'd be very sad if they meant the end of print. I think it should be very much hoped for that traditional publishing and e-books form a happy alliance. I don't personally own a Kindle or any other kind of e-book reader. My wife does, and although she only occasionally reads a book on it, finds the experience pleasant. I sometimes read a book on my PC - this isn't entirely convenient, because it maroons me at my workstation, but it's useful occasionally. The obvious drawback of e-readers from my writer's perspective is the missed opportunity for promotion. The print version of a book is like a walking advertisement. Imagine getting into your morning commuter train: you've just finished your book on Kindle and can't think which if any of the 3791 free downloads on the machine you'd like to start next? You look around and notice half a dozen (deeply engrossed naturally!) individuals reading the print version of a book called Niedermayer & Hart. You note the name of the author, one you don't know, and then you notice another half a dozen people in your carriage are reading another M J Johnson title called Roadrage. You do a search, take advantage of the cheaper price on Kindle and download it immediately ... oops ... floated away for a moment there along the river of fame and fortune on the sweet raft of unbounded literary success ... tapocketa ... tapocketa ... tapocketa ... Seriously though, if print ceased to exist, this long established, simple but effective form of marketing would disappear. It also strikes me that to lose printed books and the interest they generate will only help to make us more insular - which to my mind can't be a good thing - we already spend far too much time locked away in our own little worlds, glued to one screen or another. What I particularly like about print books is a willingness to declare to the world what's being read. You'd undoubtedly be viewed with some suspicion if you got on the morning bus or tube train and took out a book in a brown, plain paper cover. I suppose for some people e-readers make 'naughty stuff' possible, I understand that erotic literature is a rapidly expanding market (no intentional double entendre!). On holiday last summer I struck up a conversation with an Englishwoman I saw sitting in our hotel's delightful garden. I observed she was reading a thriller by a well known author I'd personally never read. Christine had picked it up for 50p in a charity shop the day they left home and passed it on to me once she'd finished it - another thing you can't do with an e-reader! She and her husband Brian, a lovely couple and both dedicated walkers, were from Yorkshire. We talked books with them on several occasions. If you're a reader, just consider the number of ice-breaking conversations you've had in your lifetime that were initiated by books. I told Brian that I'd been given some of the William Brown books by Richmal Crompton for my birthday this year, and remarked on how much I'd loved them as a youngster. "I can't really say I was all that fussed about the William books when I were a lad," said Brian. "Really?" I asked, possibly displaying some incredulity without meaning to appear rude. "What did you used to read as a boy, then?" I asked. Brian, a twinkle in his eye, stuck out his chest with manful pride and proclaimed,"Captain W E Johns!" "Biggles!" I said, "Now you're talking!" We went on to talk 'Biggles'. I think our wives may have fallen asleep at this point. Niedermayer & Hart and Roadrage by M J Johnson are available in print and e-book versions:- Click here to buy a print version directly from this site
For e-books etc. see list to right of page
I laughed like a drain at the brainless antics of Ron Burgundy and chums in Anchorman, felt Gaylord Focker's pain through Meet the Parents and its (first) sequel, thought I'd actually split my sides when I first watched the zipper accident in Something About Mary. All these films and many others I've laughed at and enjoyed immensely. Like a great number of other folk it seems, I'll watch just about any comedy that has Ben Stiller, Will Ferrrell, Danny McBride and several other forty-something actors who make their living acting out the gamut of male adolescent neuroses and fantasies. However, I've recently experienced some pangs of dissatisfaction with the 'single flavour' that Hollywood dishes up as mainstream comedy, complete with obligatory feel-good ending.
I felt this discontent most particularly when I watched Old School recently - a film I'd always heard was excellent and had wanted to watch for ages but had never quite got round to seeing. I was given it for my birthday this summer. The film clearly owes a debt of gratitude to late Seventies classic Animal House, but in my view it wasn't a patch on this. It had all the usual ingredients: a likeable cast, lots of mayhem, bad behaviour and general silliness, but you know what? I really couldn't believe in it - neither in its plot, nor its characters. And that's the point I'm trying to make: comedy isn't solely about getting the right mix of ingredients - i.e. a certain number of gross-out moments and silly visuals - effective comedy relies on situation, character and plot. However preposterous the antics become, I actually can believe in male nurse Gaylord Focker's need to impress his future in-laws; I am equally convinced that thirteen years on, Ted hasn't been able to eradicate prom date Mary from his mind; I can even suspend my disbelief and plug myself into the surrealist Seventies universe inhabited by the cast of Anchorman. It's an odd observation but I generally only really notice the bad language in a film when it's there simply as an ingredient. There are almost certainly just as many gross moments and 'F' words in There's Something About Mary as there are in Old School, yet it was only the latter film that struck me as being coarse.
Okay, so I'm not within the age demographic these films are targeted at, and I appreciate their producers won't be losing a jot of sleep over any thoughts of mine, and while this type of movie continues to make money at the box office, I know they'll keep right on making 'em! But don't you occasionally ache for a piece of finely-crafted feature film comedy: some of the Lemmon/Mathau collaborations for instance, about people in realistic situations with everyday dilemmas to resolve?
I found myself thinking along these lines when along popped Up In The Air (2009) with George Clooney (or rather plopped - being a rough approximation of the sound it made as it found its way into our supermarket trolley) leading a very solid cast. The film, based on a novel by Walter Kirn, was co-written and directed by Jason Reitman. Reitman also directed Juno, a comedy about teenage pregnancy that I've also seen and very much enjoyed. Up In The Air is the kind of sophisticated comedy that doesn't have many laugh out loud moments (if any!) and causes more smiling than laughter. George Clooney is superb and plays a not wholly attractive character with great skill. The film didn't fail for me on any level. The ending is better than 'feel-good', because we have witnessed the main protagonist go through a series of encounters and experiences that have altered his perception of the world. It's a film that stays with you, and one I'd definitely recommend.
Over the past week my wife and I have had the pleasure of visiting our local cinema twice. The two pieces of work we saw had relatively few things in common: they were projected onto a screen; they were well crafted; they were both excellent. However, that's about it as far as the similarities went!
The first was The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett in the NT Live season. This was an encore performance - so not exactly 'live', as it had been recorded a few years back. And I am so glad we managed to see it. Anything written by Alan Bennett is always worth seeing in my book, and it was lovely to see the late Richard Griffiths in what must have been one of his last stage performances. He played the poet WH Auden in the latter years of his life and the play culminates in an imagined meeting between Auden and his estranged friend and former work collaborator Benjamen Britten (Alex Jennings). The play is very funny, yet touching at the same time. The structure Bennett has chosen for his play is fascinating, because he has set the piece in a rehearsal room. The real actors are portraying fictional actors in a rehearsal space, preparing to put on a play about an imaginary meeting between Auden and Britten. The stage manager, whose task it is to take charge of the 'run through' on the instruction of its absent director, is played with great warmth by Frances de la Tour. The play was directed by Nicholas Hytner and the supporting cast, many of whom are familiar faces in the NT repertory, were all very accomplished. All round a superbly crafted piece of theatre.
Our second visit to the Tunbridge Wells Odeon a few days later was to see Gravity. This has only just been released in the UK, stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and has quite deservedly received nigh-on a hundred percent perfect notices from all its reviewers. I tweeted shortly after watching it that it is the first 3D movie I've seen that I actually really liked. I normally find the rigmarole of wearing the glasses and waiting for the next bit of 3D action to make me go 'Oooh' or 'Ahh' simply annoying (my wife has implied on occasion that I'm a 'grumpy old man'! To this I say - Hurumph!). However, I'd never seen a 3D movie before that totally engaged me from its opening to closing credits. Although I'm sure this movie would have done so in 2D too! Its stars are both excellent, particularly Bullock, who is on screen for about ninety percent of the picture. The dialogue is sparse and lean, the CGI effects are truly astounding, yet it's the human story (another thing in common with The Habit of Art!) unfolding before our very eyes that really commands the audience's attention. I can't imagine Sandra Bullock not receiving an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for this, and it may well prove a fruitless year for any other film actress about to put in a career best performance. It was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who I suspect will be up for an Oscar as well. And I daresay the film will be nominated in several other categories too. This is definitely a movie worth seeing on a cinema screen as it is truly spectacular.
So all in all a week when any personal requirements for mental and visual stimulation were met most satisfactorily.
Since returning from our holiday at the beginning of September, apart from this blog, I've been taking a break from daily writing. As mentioned before, I've used my time building a terrace out of a large quantity of reclaimed bricks that I'd saved and stored. What I originally envisioned as being a small single wall about two or three bricks tall, just grew and grew. Things I do have a tendency to develop like this - I originally conceived Niedermayer & Hart to be a simple story of around 80,000 words - it wound up as two intertwined tales and weighed in at 164,000 words. Anyway, my garden walls took on a few curves and bends, encompassed a small pond area and a deck for reading and relaxing. I've nearly completed everything now. I just need the flippin' British weather to comply with my aims for a few days! At the moment we seem to be in the monsoon season. So, as I prepare to take my building hat off and settle myself down to writing again, I've been in reflective mood and thinking about what it'll entail getting back into harness again. My books arriving in Australia (courtesy of Maxine)
It's almost two years since my wife and I first made the decision to bring out my novels Niedermayer & Hart and Roadrage under the auspices of our Odd Dog Press label. Tyrol, Austria 2013
Do I have any regrets?
Not one, really. At 56, without the right credentials and with no 'label' or fanbase I could bring along from my previous career as an ankle sock model, traditional publishing was and is, I fervently believed (and still do!), a completely closed door. My earlier brush with the world of publishing was a pretty negative and deeply frustrating experience. I'm not enamoured of the way they sometimes operate and treat people.
Do I still believe that a book published traditionally guarantees a certain quality to its potential reader-base?
Yes, of course. When buying a mainstream book I wouldn't expect to find too many typos, grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. However, I personally wouldn't tolerate any indie/self-published book that was littered with this kind of shoddiness either. As for content, the traditional publishers' catalogues are definitely not cr*p free zones, they comprehensively cover the whole gamut - ranging from jewels to blatant stinkers! But it's an undeniable fact of life that the good stuff is largely easier to discover via the mainstream. Nevertheless, we've all read a glowing review by a top newspaper reviewer for a book, which we subsequently read and discovered to be quite dreadful.
So, do I think my own stuff compares favourably with trad. published books?
The print quality of all Odd Dog Press books is fairly high. Not one reader has so far criticised either of my own novels for basic writing skills (spelling, grammar etc). I certainly don't take all the credit for that - I have a great team of people willing to help me to edit, proof-read etc. As for writing style/content that's entirely down to personal taste. If you belong to my books' target audience, then you'll likely enjoy them; if not, the reverse is always possible. I've found myself actively dissuading people in the past (particularly friends and acquaintances with a lofty literary bent) from buying copies. If story-led stuff isn't what you like to read, then I'd personally prefer you didn't bother, because chances are you won't enjoy it and consequently won't be recommending it to your chums - and I suppose that is the ultimate aim! Unexpectedly, some people, who I anticipated would dislike one or both of my books, absolutely loved them. Some readers loved one book but were less attracted to the other. I guess this is inevitable because Niedermayer & Hart and Roadrage don't belong to the same genres.
It's not very pleasant when people say negative things about your work, but I'd uphold anyone's right to do so. However, I admit to feeling a bit fed-up reading a (quite badly written) negative review about Niedermayer & Hart (the only really stinky one it's had so far!). I felt particularly aggrieved when the reviewer admitted to only having read about a third before going on to skim the remainder as fast as possible. But he admits this, and fortunately people seem able to ' read between the lines' of internet reviews. We have to - I've sometimes come across the most dire warnings for hotels with some incredulity, as we enjoyed a faultless holiday at the very same venue. Let's face it, nothing works for everyone. Just take a look at the 1 star reviews posted on Amazon for what is in my view (and a good many other people's!) one of the finest novels of the Twentieth Century - Catch 22. I mean to say, even if they didn't love it, it's still hard to credit how anyone could give it just one measly star! Surely anyone reading it must see the merits of this fine piece of writing? Don't you agree? Don't you? Huh?
So, it's back to writing. I enjoyed the summer walking in the Tyrol with best pal, Judith; I'll no longer have to survey a massive stack of reclaimed bricks from the window of my writing area; and most of the exterior jobs have been taken care of too. Another bonus is the fact that my labours have left me a little bit fitter with even an odd muscle or two reappearing - a desktop mouse I discover, doesn't require the same lifting effort as bags of cement! And confident in the knowledge that I've improved our home, I'll be able to return to my keyboard with my halo all a-glowing!(Horror/thriller Niedermayer & Hart and psychological thriller Roadrage are available in printed versions and as ebooks - click here for details )
Terry Jackson, Robert Blythe, Terry Mortimer (me levitating!)
As it's Halloween, I thought I'd relate a personal incident I've always looked upon as a ghostly encounter. It was certainly a strange experience and one I've always found hard to completely rationalise. I'm not trying to sell you a ghost story here; perhaps it was simply a string of coincidences, along with a nightmare engendered by conversations that evening. Who knows? I'm simply going to state how it came about, and let you make up your own minds as to the rest. The 'event', for want of a better term, happened to me over thirty years ago and if there are inaccuracies in my account (there quite possibly are!) I apologise; these are simply down to the baleful effect that time has on memory and aren't a deliberate attempt to mislead.
I left drama school in 1976, picked-up an Equity ticket doing TIE (Theatre in Education), and in the Autumn of 1977 began working for the Welsh Drama Company. The company was the impoverished sister of the established and highly successful Welsh Opera Company. Both companies worked from a large customised warehouse in an otherwise largely derelict area of Cardiff. The Welsh Drama Company's fortunes were actually in the doldrums (sadly never to recover!), their funding having been greatly reduced by the Arts Council. The company, once quite ambitious in its scope, was by now little more than a community theatre company. We toured Wales, playing mostly single nights at small venues, community centres, church and miners halls etc. In larger towns we'd play for a few days at a time. The stuff we performed was specially written by Phil Woods, and our first play was called 'Ghost Stories', directed by Gruffudd Jones. It was a comic piece, 'a sealed house drama' where six characters are brought together and one by one relate a 'ghostly tale'. As the evening develops, they realise that they are unwittingly all caught up in a ghost story together. The whole thing was basically just good-natured fun. I played a comically sinister character called Gregory Hammond who had Satanic inclinations, and in one scene, I not only hypnotised everyone else on stage, but started to actually levitate, then tossed off a quick incantation and conjured up a demon - all in the best possible taste! People always wanted to know how the levitation was done. It was visually quite convincing. All I'd admit to enquiring members of the public was that it took a lot of practice. This wasn't actually true; it was in fact, an incredibly simple trick. However, not one person, though they eagerly advanced imaginative theories, usually involving wires or mirrors, actually figured out how it was done. And guess what? I'm still not telling!
One of our venues was a place called Clyro Court. The village of Clyro is right on the Welsh border, about a mile from its now famous neighbour Hay-on Wye. Clyro Court was a stately home that had been converted into a luxury hotel. When one of our party first saw the large house as they came along the drive, they were heard to remark that it looked like Baskerville Hall from the Sherlock Holmes tales. This was a remarkably perceptive observation, because Clyro Court was indeed the home of the real Baskerville family. Apparently Conan Doyle had often visited his Baskerville friends at Clyro, and with their permission used their name, which he put together with a local legend about a large dog, but for discretion's sake set the tale in Dartmoor. Back in 1977 it was owned and managed by a chap whose first name I recall was Colin - the surname I forget.
You can imagine our delight, all young actors, invariably strapped for cash, not only getting to play a tasty venue like Clyro but having our accommodation there too! It was a big treat, as we were generally only in the market for the cheapest 'digs' in town. Something I should tell you about the hotel, Clyro Court, back in those days, was that it didn't have any room numbers - but every room had been awarded the name of a country. I discovered myself in 'India' - a smallish room with exotic wallpaper and a four poster bed. It was very comfortable. I soon discovered, however, that a number of my colleagues had done far better than me. Some of them were in rooms that seemed to my youthful eyes to be as broad as football stadiums, bearing untold luxuries - like water-beds et al (I hadn't got out much by this time!). I recall visiting our stage manager, Sean, who was giving public audiences from a sunken bathtub, reclining amongst hillocks of bubble bath with a glass of champagne and a large cigar stuffed into a corner of his mouth! His room was 'USA', I suppose the red and white stripes of the wallpaper and the blue paintwork were meant to suggest the US flag. The weekend at Clyro seemed like the perfect opportunity to invite my girlfriend (later my wife), who I already shared a flat with in London, down to stay. She arrived on Saturday afternoon. We'd already played one performance at the venue on Friday evening - so I'd slept one night in 'India' by the time she got to us!
After the second evening's performance we all congregated, as we generally did, in the bar. I recall our table was near a stone plaque, laid by Thomas Baskerville when the house was new. We were all sitting at a table with Colin, Clyro Court's owner. He had an interest in all things to do with the occult and possessed an object he referred to as a 'gnome stone'. Yes, our tongues were firmly fixed in our cheeks too, gentle reader! This stone, rectangular in shape, approximately eight inches by twelve, looked to me like an undistinguished slab of sandstone. Anyway, Colin said he was able to 'read' this stone and that it could be asked questions concerning the future. We were each allowed to ask it something, for this we had to focus our minds on our question - the response would come via the 'Gnome Stone's' medium, Colin. Actually the answer I got to mine turned out to be fairly accurate, but then it was also rather generalised. At midnight, Judith and I left the assembled company and turned in for the night.
I felt remarkably tired and fell asleep quite soon - this is almost reversed behaviour for us, as I was ever a poor sleeper, while Judith has always been swift off the mark to run into the arms of Morpheus. However, she told me later that she'd had a really strong conviction that it would be unwise for her to fall asleep. She couldn't have rationally explained it, because she felt completely safe herself but just couldn't shake off the notion that I was in some kind of personal danger. She was convinced that she must remain awake - and watch over me as I slept!
Two hours later, at 2 am (the time is relevant!), whilst laying asleep on my back, I began to groan, then I started thrashing from side to side. It was, Judith described later, like watching someone trying to turn over or get up but who is being held by invisible bonds and therefore immobilised. In fact, this describes exactly what I was experiencing in my nightmare, or whatever it was. I was actually 'seeing' it all too: observing myself (though fast asleep you understand!) in bed, fully aware that I was in the room 'India', I could even see Judith lying troubled and awake beside me. The reason why I couldn't rise or turn was because a youngish woman, dressed in the kind of embroidered lace nightdress worn by ladies in the nineteenth-century, was actually standing on my torso, and although I sensed no weight bearing down, she had me literally pinned to the spot. Her arms were reaching out towards me, and I knew that she was calling me to come to her. My willpower to resist seemed to be diminishing fast, as the energy was leeched out of my sleeping form and drawn up into her.
I don't know, and don't really want to know what the 'spectres' intended outcome was. Fortunately, Judith shook me quite firmly until I was wide awake!
I told her I'd had a nightmare and explained the gist of what I'd experienced. Nightmares have never really concerned me too much, so I went straight back off to sleep. Judith didn't tell me until the next day that she hadn't felt it safe for her to fall asleep earlier - I suspect getting back off to sleep again might have been less easy if she had! However, once this 'event' had occured, she felt with a conviction as unshakeable as she had known before, that I was no longer in any danger, and allowed herself to settle down and sleep too.
In the morning, over breakfast, my friends in the company said they wished they'd left and gone to bed at the same time as us. They explained that after we'd gone off, things had got a little weird and rather freakish down in the bar. Colin, our host, had brought out a ouija board and had suggested they hold a seance. Those who were present described an uncomfortable rather stifling presence in the room during this seance. Colin announced to all that a female ghost had materialised before them; the name Elizabeth was spelt out on the ouija board; then, without any warning, setting everyone's nerves firmly on edge, there was suddenly a great crash - a window had blown out on the ground floor of the building! My actor chums found the experience all a bit too much to take, they said they were suddenly very tired and quickly beat a retreat.
"What time did all this happen?" Judith asked.
Someone said they'd glanced up at the wall clock when the woman's name was being spelt out on the board and that it was 2 am. It was only at this point that Judith explained how she had sensed I was in danger and had resisted sleep herself.
Whilst with the Welsh Drama Company, I happily performed and stayed at Clyro Court once again. Nothing untoward happened, however, on this subsequent visit we all stayed away from seances and ouija boards. I was relieved when arriving at the reception desk to be given a key for 'Greece'. My pal Terry Jackson had stayed in this room on the previous occasion and he assured me that I'd get nothing but a good night's sleep. He was right, I did. Nobody stayed in 'India' on this our final visit.
And there you have it. Was I actually haunted, or had our imaginations simply constructed something out of all the other-worldly stuff that was going on about us?
We've had a busy few days recently and several late nights - but who cares? I no longer possess a complexion worth getting to sleep early to conserve! Yes, Tommy Cooper was born in Caerphilly!
Quite incredibly, it's been nearly a year since my mother passed away, and although my emotions aren't as raw as they were in the weeks immediately following her death, there remains a great sadness when I think of the almost constant loneliness she suffered during her final years. I have an old bureau that was originally purchased by my grandfather around the time of WW1 and which always held a prominent position in our family home. I associate it with my parents, and since I've inherited it, whenever one of its glass doors swings open unannounced (a matter of a worn-out locking mechanism, not ghosts!) my wife and I always greet it with a cheery, "Hallo Mam!" Occasionally both doors open simultaneously and when this happens we welcome my Dad too. It's comforting to own a piece of furniture that connects me to family - its very presence brings to me an incontrovertible sense of belonging at least somewhere in this great big world! I can only imagine how devastating it must be for refugees fleeing from an oppressor, still an all too frequent reality, people running for their lives and forced to abandon all else.
Because of my long adopted practice of visiting my mother for several days at a time every six weeks, I'd recently found myself experiencing the phenomenon we Welsh call 'hiraeth' - it translates into English as 'longing' but this doesn't nearly do it justice - the word conjures-up in us 'Taffs' an umbilical link to hearth and homeland. Anyway. the opportunity to return home arrived by way of an invitation to a birthday party in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire - near enough to Wales to plan a long weekend! We left late on Thursday evening and stayed for two nights near the town of Caerphilly in south-east Wales. On Friday we explored the town and were both struck by the friendliness of its people. In the afternoon we visited Caerphilly's impressive, moated Norman castle, built by the immensely powerful Gilbert de Clare in 1268. We agreed that the quite extensively restored areas enhanced the experience positively, as too did some highly imaginative audio/visual presentations. It was well worth the visit and comes highly recommended. Later on that afternoon we got ourselves pretty much lost on top of a mountain whilst trying to navigate our way to Pontypridd. The mountain sheep eyed us with disinterest, a hill runner gave us a cheerful wave as we drove by, and the only car we passed stopped for a humorous exchange in true 'valleys' fashion.
On Saturday we drove the twelve miles into Cardiff, enjoyed its marvellous shopping precinct and met up with some friends for a chat. We were very lucky with weather, and just as it began to rain with a not unprecedented ferocity for Wales, we were fortunate enough to be heading east along the M4 towards our new accommodation in Wiltshire for Saturday night. We were given impeccable directions by our hotel receptionist to the birthday party's location, which turned out to be a terrific evening. The entertainment was provided by a really accomplished local band called The Dubious Brothers. They must've known I was coming because they covered just about every one of my favourite songs from the last four or five decades! We drove home on Sunday morning and after picking up the week's shopping, didn't overtax ourselves for the rest of the day.
Yesterday we had another late night as we'd booked to see 'Hamlet', an NT Live encore production to mark the National Theatre's fiftieth anniversary. We were told that the showing marked exactly fifty years since Peter O'Toole's performance as the Dane in the National's very first production of the play, then staged at the Old Vic and directed by Laurence Olivier. The central role in our version was comfortably inhabited by Rory Kinnear, Patrick Malahide brought the corrupt Claudius to sleazy life, James Laurenson was a powerfully moving ghost and David Calder brought much warmth and humour to Polonius. I shan't go on with listing, it was directed by Nicholas Hytner with crystal clarity, and for this reason might have been especially worth seeing for anyone coming to the play for the first time. I for one found myself totally engaged throughout the entire performance.
Street performers taking a rest in Innsbruck
This summer we opted for two weeks, mainly walking, in the Tyrol. The only real variation in this plan was a daytrip to Innsbruck by bus and train for a day of 'culture cramming'. This was the second time we've visited Innsbruck, and hopefully not the last, as we still have more to see. We spent the morning at the Ferdinandeum Art Gallery/Museum where they have a collection that is well worth viewing, notably a Rembrandt and a charming painting by Peter Brueghel the Younger. We also particularly enjoyed the paintings of Austrian artist Albin Egger-Lienz.
After a break for lunch we revisited the Hofkirche, to be once again awed by the magnificence and artistry of the Tomb of the Emperor Maximilian 1. The tomb, as its intended to do, dominates the central nave of the church. However, the Emperor himself is actually buried elsewhere and had already been dead for many years by the time this monument to the greatness and the might of the Holy Roman Empire was completed. The work has understandably and deservedly been hailed as the finest example of German Renaissance sculpture. At the centre of the monument is a massive black marble sarcophagus (presumably empty). Sited at the top of this structure is a bronze statue of the Emperor Maximillian, proudly kneeling in humble supplication before God. It is a truly marvellous piece of propaganda!
The skill of the many master craftsmen who produced this incredible work of art has to be seen to be believed. To produce such a masterpiece, the Habsburgs employed many of the finest artists and craftspeople at work in the sixteenth century. The intricacies of the wrought iron screen around the tomb were achieved by a Prague master craftsman called Schmiedhammer, and the bronze statue of the Emperor himself and the 24 (quite stunning) marble reliefs around the tomb, depicting scenes from Maximilian's life, were mostly the work of Alexander Colin. However, there is still more to see: surrounding the tomb, standing in a kind of homage, are 28 larger-than-life-size statues of Maximillian's ancestors and contemporaries, with a few mythical characters like King Arthur of England thrown in for good measure. This particular statue and several others were designed by the artist Albrecht Dürer, and it is widely regarded as the finest depiction of a knight found anywhere in Renaissance Art.
The bronze statues have acquired an austere dark patina over time. But I have to admit to taking a little profane delight when I saw the shining bright codpiece sported by Rudolph 1 - irresistibly prominent and within easy reach, Rudolph's lucky charms, polished to a fine sheen by countless touching fingers over the centuries. What an ignominy!
The following images which concentrate on the workmanship and detail rather than the overall majesty of the tomb, which no photograph could ever really capture, were taken by Tom Johnson and are presented here with his kind permission.
A Child is Born - Dunvant Male Choir
The weekly blog! Sometimes, just like Raymond Briggs' wonderful creation Fungus the Bogeyman out on his nightly duties of scaring people, engendering boils etc, I catch myself wondering if there's any point in it all or whether it's really worth the effort. This doesn't take the form of a constant melancholic soliloquising, as in poor Fungus' case - more often than not, it's simply just me throwing my rattle out of the pram - railing against the (self-imposed) discipline of producing something (hopefully) readable and interesting every week. Actually, I genuinely love my blog and such displays of pique are infrequent.
Occasionally though, the blog has done far more than was ever expected of it. I have been contacted on numerous occasions via my website by long lost friends and relatives, who found my blog after searching a common area of interest. This outcome always brings me great joy! However, sometimes I'm approached too by unknown people who have found my site through making a general search on behalf of a hobby or interest. This was how Robert Evans, who resides now in California, was able to get in touch. He, like me, was once a Gowerton Boys' Grammar School boy, though in a different era, but we both performed in the school Dramatic Society and were taught English by the marvellous Gilbert Bennett. I recently responded to his charming email, and somehow the world feels a little cosier to know there's a Gowerton boy out there somewhere in Northern California!
Actually, his email was quite synchronistic, as only a day or two before I'd received another email from Dewi Morgan of Dunvant Male Choir (near Swansea, South Wales). About a year ago, I forget exactly how it came about, Dewi contacted me to ask for my permission to reprint my Gilbert Bennett post in their annual magazine - GB had been a Vice President. I happily consented of course, but assumed there must have been a change of plan, since I hadn't heard any more about it and the promised magazine didn't materialise. All was explained in Dewi's email - the printing had suffered long delays - a copy was on its way to me.
I received the magazine in the post this afternoon together with the kind gift of a Dunvant Male Choir CD - A Child is Born - A Celebration of Christmas Music - featuring Bryn Terfel - and (I suppose more topically) with narration by Gilbert Bennett. I was delighted and I can't wait to sit down and listen to it. Many thanks to Dewi and Dunvant Male Choir!
Last week we saw Othello in the NT Live Season at our local cinema. Quite incredible to think that when it was first performed during the reign of James 1, the number of bodies the theatre could physically hold (at a guess perhaps 500 - possibly 1000?) were all who could have experienced it. Last Thursday however, because of some incredible technology, it was broadcast right around the globe (no pun intended!) and played in just one evening to something like 100,000 souls.
It was good to see a large number of teenagers at the showing. I often wonder at NT Live performances why they are so badly attended by people under the age of thirty (at our cinema anyhow), especially as Drama is such a popular subject in schools. When I was a teenager I know that my friends and I would have sold our devoted Mums into slavery for the opportunity to see world-class theatre for little more than the price of a cinema seat (Oh, the callousness of youth!). Presumably the increased attendance last week was because the play is a text for some examwork? It certainly was when I was at school, I recall studying it for my A Levels. However, I didn't get an opportunity to actually see the play performed until last Thursday evening - so, for me, it was a first! And it was, I am pleased to say, definitely worth waiting for. The play's message rings out with crystal clarity across the four hundred years dividing us from Shakespeare's life and times. The writing is truly wondrous - sometimes it seems a bit unfair on the rest of us just how brilliant he was. My wife pointed out how many book/play titles and sayings we take for granted and are accepted as part of our English tongue, which have been simply lifted from 'the Bard'. He seems to understand and explain the human condition like no other playwright. Unfortunately, four hundred years hasn't seen much alter in the way of human nature. The play's themes of suspicion, jealousy and hate are sadly as relevant today as they were when the ink for Othello was still wet on the page.
The roles of Othello and Iago were superbly portrayed and brought to life in this excellent National Theatre production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, by Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear respectively. The leading actors are supported by a very good cast,and the passage of time hasn't by any means diminished the play's power to shock and move us. It remains a thoroughly disturbing experience to watch a good man being fed lies, until his mind has been utterly poisoned against his faithful and adoring wife, culminating in the most appalling tragedy. The character of Iago has always intrigued me, in particular his lack of a really solid motive for his malevolence. At times during the play he soliloquises and gives us different reasons for his hatred of the Moor. Yet, they are never completely convincing: Cassio was preferred for a recent promotion over him; he says he has heard a rumour that Othello may have slept with his own wife, Emilia; at one time he tells us that he himself is besotted with Desdemona. However, these pronouncements lack much weight and conviction it seems to me: I suspect Iago's true motive is simply hate.
I put a quote from the final scene of Othello at the beginning of my novel Roadrage, a psychological thriller that is itself concerned with the corrosive power of hate and intolerance. I chose it too (without giving anything away) because my 'baddie' has quite a lot in common with Shakespeare's great malcontent. The words are as chilling today as they doubtless were when first spoken by an actor back in 1604:
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil,
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?
Demand me nothing: What you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.