OK – so when did you last go to a panto?….. So many decades ago in my case that it feels like millennia! Which is why, when one of my favourite neighbourhood theatres, the Park in Finsbury Park, flagged up Jack in the Beanstalk with rave reviews from everyone from Sir Ian McKellan to Mumsnet…. I just had to go! And, if you really get your skates on, so can you – it finishes on Saturday night.
Was it fun? Yes it was!!! Combine a Tupperware obsessed dame, the smallest giant in the world, a frustrated Hamlet, five singing shepherd wizards, Daisy the cow, the evil inventor Ms Grimm, a mind boggling number of costume changes and a willing audience – and everyone was in for a laugh! Delightfully silly combined with delightfully witty… Can’t wait for next year now…
To balance out the frivolity I have spent much of the Christmas holidays with my nose buried in a happy pile of books – which I would like to share. I think they are all so well worth reading that I would like more people to do so!
First – and the only one which I have all but finished – My Promised Land by Ari Shavit. This is an extraordinarily enlightening, if also depressing, exploration into what Ari Shavit himself calls the ‘the triumph and tragedy of Israel’. For most of us who only watch events in and around Israel from afar, the complexities of the Jewish/Palestinian gridlock are totally baffling – so much wrong and so much right on both sides, so many to blame, so much to avenge, so few ways out.
Not that Ari Shavit, a respected political journalist born in Israel in the early years of independence, provides solutions. What he does do, is to explain. Starting with his own great grandfather, a well to do English Jew who who first visited what was then Palestine in the 1890s, he follows the twists and turns of Zionism, the wars, the waves of immigration from both east and west, the Ashkenazi and the Oriental Jews, the nuclear option, the settlements, the Palestinian refugees, the rise of the ultra orthodox, the political stalemate.
So far from dull or turgid is the tale that I found myself sneaking out of Christmas festivities to read more. There is no certainty that understanding is enough to find a way through for this troubled land, but it must surely be a first requisite. If you are at all interested in the politics of the middle east (and far away though they may appear, they could impact on us all) do read Ari Shavit’s book.
My Promised Land is, in effect, a biography of Israel and my other three Christmas books are also biographies – two of places one of self.
I am sure that many of you will have heard Neil MacGregor’s Germany, Memories of a Nation on Radio 4. Using the same format as the hugely successful History of the World in a 100 Objects, the British Museum’s director used objects from both within and without the museum’s collections to tell the story of Germany from the Emperor Charles IV, who founded the first German speaking university in Prague in 1348, to today.
I heard very few of the broadcasts, but enough to tempt me to buy the book when it popped up in The Week. It is a massive tome, very heavily illustrated (the reproduced images are not as glossy as we have come to expect from such book but since it only costs £30, it can be forgiven) but light to read if heavy to hold! If you go in for good loo-reading books – perfect!
Another perfect loo-reading book is also a biography of place – but this time of London. For some year’s now our downstairs loo has been graced by Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful London – The Biography – and now it can be joined by a more modest but no less delightful companion, Londoners by Craig Taylor. A compendium of interviews which make up ‘The days and nights of London now – as told by those who love it, hate it, live it, left it and long for it’. For any historian among you who may have dipped into Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, a long series of interviews with the street sweepers, sewer hunters and costermongers of Victoria London, this will be delightfully familiar territory. So far I have only heard the thoughts of a city planning officer (amazingly sensitive), two grumpy residents on the Surrey borders, and a driving instructor – but I cannot wait for more…
And finally, maybe not for the loo and not really for the faint-hearted either, but very poetic if you can brace yourself…. Brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s autobiography, Do No Harm – Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.
Since the good doctor has divided his memoirs into chapters which deal with specific cases and operations, this is a very dip-into-able book. And since he is genuinely in love with the enthralling complexities and the very real beauty of the brain, and the heart stopping adventure of cutting into it to solve its problems, it is really not gory in the way you might expect. Indeed, since each operation involves a person and a family with whom he does his best to connect, each chapter is a moving testament to what both patients and their doctors go through to try and get them better. Maybe take it a chapter at a time, but it is very well worth the read.
OK – so much for the reading! Now for a dose of Mapp and Lucia – followed by Alex Guiness in Kind Hearts and Coronets! Great way to see in the new year….