Flash Fiction and Hibbert’s Histories

The Flashman Novels, by George Macdonald Fraser (published in paperback by HarperCollins), and the historical works of Christopher Hibbert (various)

Spring is very obviously in the air here in Edinburgh, the rain is unmistakably getting warmer and even the snowfall halts occasionally to give the hailstones a chance!  Here and there crocuses and daffodils brave the elements however, and so all in all there are signs that this particular corner of the great orb is gently moving away from winter towards summer…

Today is a good day for a book by the fireside (or perhaps even a Kindle, Sony Digital, Nook, iPad, or Barnes & Noble for the digitally minded), so here are a number that I’ve been plodding through over the past few weeks.

Thanks to my good friend Alastair Stewart who knows a thing or two about books, I finally conquered my preconceptions and decided to read the first three Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser, which he very kindly passed on to me.  The first thing to say is that these books should come with a health warning, because politically correct in any shape or form they certainly are not.  Flashman is the very picture of a cad, coward and gadabout, whose nineteenth century life and adventures are recounted in his own frank terms, as an old man looking back.  Perhaps like Fleming’s Bond stories, they are the kind of books that people could read in the 1970s without batting an eyelid, whereas to our more socially conscious twenty first century minds it all seems rather outrageous, scandalous even!  I genuinely wonder whether a publisher would even agree to print them in this day and age, if Macdonald Fraser were to wander in with his battered manuscripts.

Flashman With a sense of shame almost, I have to state honestly nonetheless that the Flashman books are brilliantly written and researched, easy to read, extremely funny and in many ways as good an education as anyone might require in British Imperial history.  The first book, Flashman, recounts the cowardly hero’s experiences in the disastrous First Afghan War of 1839-42, including the famous retreat from Kabul under the leadership of Lord Elphinstone, descendant of the Bishop of the same name who founded Aberdeen University; the second book, Royal Flash, sees Flashy dabbling in the world of European politics and coming head to head with Germany’s Otto Von Bismark, with all kinds of outrageous consequences too numerous to go into here; and the third book, Flash for Freedom, sees him sail the Atlantic on a slave ship in 1848 before criss-crossing pre-civil war America, where he has numerous run-ins with slavers and abolitionists alike (including the up and coming Abraham Lincoln).  Shockingly and even distastefully frank at times, the books are nonetheless brilliantly reconstructed pictures of the pre and early Victorian world, not as some would perhaps like to see it, but undoubtedly as it actually was.

On the subject of history, one of the finest and most readable historians of the twentieth century is undoubtedly Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008), once described in The Times as probably the most widely-read popular historian of our time and undoubtedly one of the most prolific”.  My first encounter with Hibbert’s writing was The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961), a mesmerizing account of the Crimean War which won him the Heinmann Award for Literature in 1962.  It was watching The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, starring John Gielgud and Trevor Howard) which led me to pick the book up.  It is a book I will never forget reading, so gripping are his descriptions of the folly and horrors of that tragic campaign (a subject I’ve attempted to summarise elsewhere in this blog – On the Crimean War).

Charge-Of-The-Light-Brigade DestructionRaglanI’ve since followed up that first experience of his writing with two other books, King Mob (Longmans, 1958), his account of London’s tumultuous Gordon Riots of 1780 led by that famous and very eccentric Scotsman Lord George Gordon, and The French Revolution (1980, Allen Lane).  What makes Hibbert’s historical prose so fascinating is his intense focus on the personalities of those involved.  With the Crimean the key is to understand Raglan himself, every facet of his character and personality: while with the Gordon Riots it’s Lord George “The Mad Scotchman” (which is the title of his opening chapter, beginning as follows):

‘They were, and are, all mad’, Walpole said of them, dismissing in a spasm of irritation all of the members of the Gordon family past and present.  The exasperated judgement was not entirely groundless.  The Gordons had for generations shown occasional signs of something more than eccentricity and at the time of Walpole’s verdict several members of the family were said to be extremely odd.”

And of course when it comes to the French Revolution, Hibbert spends time building in the reader’s mind a clear picture of King Louis XVI:

The new King was nineteen years old.  Although kind and generous by nature, his manner was usually brusque, cold and formal, marked by fits of ill humour and sharp retorts.  His Keeper of the Seals had ‘never known anyone whose character was more contradicted by outward appearances’.  He was ‘really good and tender hearted’.  You could ‘never speak to him of disasters and accidents to people without seeing a look of compassion come over his face, yet his replies were often hard, his tone harsh, his manner unfeeling.’  Hesitant, reserved and ungainly, his appearance, too, was unprepossessing.  He had clear blue eyes and abundant fair hair, but his mouth was over flabby and his chin pale and fat.”

It is often said of Tolstoy, drawing from War and Peace, that his view of history demonstrated the ultimate insignificance of great men such as Tsar Alexander I, or Napoleon: that individuals great or small do not determine the course of events, and everyone is equally carried along by the epic tide.  If there is any truth in that resounding conclusion then it is a truth which Hibbert seems to contradict, since he portrays the chief persons in his histories in a way which shows it is their very own key strengths and weaknesses of character or disposition which ripple out, determining the outcomes when events teeter on a knife edge.  In the final analysis Hibbert’s is perhaps the more practical and realistic appraisal of history, no doubt born out of his own distinguished career as first an infantryman and then captain in the London Irish Rifles Regiment, fighting in Italy during the Second World War (for which he received the Military Cross).

George Macdonald Fraser and Christopher Hibbert are two of our finest and most prolific writers, united by their love of history.  One reveals it through fiction, the other non-fiction; but both paint unforgettable portraits of the characters who populate their pages.  Truly wonderful books.

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A very British thriller…

Book review:

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household (Orion Books, CrimeMasterworks, 2002; originally printed in 1939 by Chatto & Windus – available here)

RogueMale-novel Ten years ago, British publishers Orion Books produced a new imprint of classics under the label ‘crime masterworks’.  The published list of forty seven titles is impressive, and as good a place as any to start a comprehensive journey through many great books, such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘Midnight Plus One’.  There’s a list of all the available books here.

One of the finest books in the series is ‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffrey Household, a threshold-of-war 1930s thriller in the style of the Thirty Nine Steps, and a book I could not recommend highly enough.  The book was made into a film in 1976 starring Peter O’Toole, Alastair Sim, John Standing and Harold Pinter.

RogueMale-film Rogue Male has been described as one of the classic thrillers of the 20th Century, in which an Englishman plans to assassinate the dictator of a European country (a thinly veiled Germany); however he is foiled at the last moment and falls into the hands of ruthless and inventive torturers.  They devise for him an ingenious and diplomatic death but, for once, they bungle the job and he escapes.  Despite escaping from continental Europe back to England, the unnamed aristocratic hero finds no safety from his pursuers and begins an enthralling life on the run, surviving in the wilds on his wits alone.  It’s a brilliant read, ideal for those in bed with a cold!

Geoffrey Household was a prolific English author of the early 20th century who wrote over thirty five novels and short story collections; however it is Rogue Male for which he is best remembered today.  You can pick up a copy here.

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Red letter day… taken on by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency

celebrate Well it’s almost Christmas, and so as an early present (to myself!) I’m delighted to say that the latest novel I’ve been working on throughout 2012 has won me the stellar services of literary agent David Haviland at the highly regarded Andrew Lownie Literary Agency in London.

Both Andrew and David have shown great enthusiasm for this, the first in a planned series of novels involving nineteenth century adventurer Doctor Mungo Lyon.  It’s all here, on their website.  Many thanks to both of them for showing such faith in me; and on that happy note, time to get back to the keyboard…

A happy and peaceful Christmas to everyone, and happy reading!

MerryChristmas

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How to blow up a bank

Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain, by Ray Perman (Birlinn Publishers, Edinburgh 2012)

It seems strange to think of it now, but there was a time when that vast pile at the top of Edinburgh’s Mound was a bank – a real live bank with a queue of people inside, waiting to pay real money into their bank accounts.  I was one of them, and when I started my life at the Scottish Bar on Edinburgh’s High Street, the tradition was to open three accounts with the Bank of Scotland just round the corner on the Mound: a current account, a tax account and a VAT account, all of which I duly did.  You didn’t need to explain to the manager at the Bank what an advocate was, or why it was that I didn’t have a penny to my name but might have in a few years: because the manager knew all about that.  You see, they had been opening accounts with fresh faced advocates for over three hundred years.  It was relationship banking, though I doubt the manager would have used that term in those days.

Crossing the Royal Mile from Parliament Square and making the short walk to the Mound used to fill me with awe – here was the Bank, cheek by jowl with Scotland’s law courts, across from the Kirk at St Giles and just down from the Castle; and when I went through the doors and across the ornately tiled floors of the busy teller room, the windows on a bright day gave a breath-taking view right across Princes Street and all the way to the glittering Firth of Forth beyond.  The sound of bagpipes drifted in, while bank clerks quietly and politely dealt with each customer in turn.  This wasn’t just a bank building, it was a statement of national identity.

I had, in fact, been a customer of the Bank of Scotland since I was 7 and I opened my Super Squirrel saver account on Princes Street in Port Glasgow.  It never entered into my head to open an account with the Royal, because my father was with the Bank (though I daresay the opposite was equally true, and generations of Scots were tuned in to the Royal Bank).  I even remember signing up a friend from primary school, and getting one whole pound added to my Super Squirrel account book for having won them this new business.  That was the Bank: canny, thrifty and secure.

That branch was of course just like every other in towns and villages all across Scotland, places which shared certain key characteristics: there would be a kirk, a short high street or cross road and a branch of both the Bank and the Royal Bank close-by.  Association with one or other bank was almost tribal, and there was always a whiff of the Jacobites about the Bank, which I suppose is why I ended up on their books.  Adverts in the ’80s and ’90s would emphasise the close relationship between the Bank and its customers, with a bank bus typically winding through Highland scenery to the jingo: “The Bank of Scotland, a friend for life.”  The Bank was as Scottish as Irn Bru, Haggis or Oor Wullie.

And then came a shotgun marriage with the Halifax, following a heated bid by both the Bank and the Royal Bank to take over London’s enormous National Westminster Bank; a bid the Royal Bank won, and which was rather like watching a fly swallow an elephant.  Somehow the Bank, our Bank, which became HBOS, was never the same again.  Then came the hurricanes of the financial crisis; then silence.

Is the Bank of Scotland really gone?  Well, we still see its signs on our streets every day, but the sad fact is that the United Kingdom’s oldest bank, founded in 1695, is now just a minor limb of the Lloyds Group based in London.  The building on the Mound is an office now, converted on the whim of HBOS executives because they thought it would make a nice place to hold corporate dinners.  Now, aptly enough, the only part of it open to the public is a small museum to the history of Scottish money.

It’s hard to take in, and with a real sense of injured national pride we might ask: how did this ruination of the Bank happen?

‘Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain’, by Ray Perman is the first book in the aftermath of the global financial collapse to look specifically at the Bank of Scotland and how its demise came about.  Veteran journalist Ray Perman is excellently placed to write on the subject, having followed the Bank’s fortunes since the 1970s when he was with the Financial Times. It’s clear from his writing that he really cares about the subject and feels strongly that the Bank’s demise should not have happened and could have been avoided.  He pulls few punches in a withering assessment, and brings home the clear message that without the Bank, Scotland is a far poorer place in many respects, beyond mere money.  The reason, he asserts, is that ‘Bank of Scotland was destroyed in seven years by men who were intelligent, hard-working and meant well, but focused only on growth.  Everything else was subordinated, with the result that they lost sight of the simple rules of banking, which had not changed since 1695.’

Before the financial crisis Scotland had, in the Bank, an organic financial institution which serviced the local needs of small and medium sized businesses, and which understood their particular business challenges.  This has been swept away now, and those left poorer are the ordinary people of Scotland.  It is a very sad tale, but one that has to be told; and as if to underline the importance of the topic, the excellent foreword to the book has been written by Alistair Darling, who was of course both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West when the financial crisis unfolded, and therefore quite literally in a unique position to comment on how events impacted upon the Bank.

If you are involved in the financial industry in Scotland, or advise those who are, Ray Perman’s book is essential reading; but I think the book would also be of interest to those with a more general interest in Scottish history and society.  As for the future?  Well, I thought it particularly interesting to note that this year’s fireworks to mark the end of the Edinburgh Festival – an event which was always sponsored by the Bank of Scotland, whose headquarters would be lit up in the afterglow – is now sponsored by Virgin Money.

Let the boom times roll!

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International Bar Association, Dublin 2012

Published today in The Scotsman

There are bound to be a few headaches this morning in Dublin after the International Bar Association’s (IBA) opening ceremony and welcome party last night.

The party, in the city’s venerable Royal Dublin Society building, marked the beginning of the week-long annual conference attended by more than 4,000 lawyers from all over the world. Host cities in recent years have included the likes of Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Singapore and Chicago.

The IBA was founded in New York in 1947 and its early members devoted themselves to the principles and aims of the United Nations in order to make a real contribution to world peace and neighbourliness. They aspired to do this, for example, by seeking to improve the administration of justice under the law. Today, the IBA is a vast international organisation with a truly worldwide membership. The conference’s slick, 178-page doorstopper of a handbook lists hundreds of speakers taking part in dozens of events.

The keynote speaker for this year’s conference is Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz: after all, the profession worldwide has rarely weathered tougher financial storms. Other showcase events include Michael Mansfield QC and Martin McGuinness on the topic “peace after terror: rules or reconciliation?” and a range of experts debating issues such as “the euro crisis: thinking the unthinkable, the public perception of lawyers and lawyers against poverty”.

The main events aside, most of the conference is taken up with working sessions in areas as diverse as insuring liabilities in cyberspace, family disputes involving trusts, “construction projects from hell” and the fabulously titled “is water law a sexy career for young lawyers?” Rest assured, no matter how obscure the niche of expertise there is pretty much guaranteed to be something for everyone.

Lawyers can be a cynical bunch, however, and when work is demanding and times tough, glittering affairs such as this one can seem far removed from our earthy realities.

But leave aside the everyday demands of another Monday morning for a moment, and ask yourself this question: can we really afford not to participate in conferences such as this? I’m afraid to say that for a country with such a remarkable legal tradition, it is astonishing that Scotland and the Scots are so markedly absent from this international legal line-up taking place on our doorstep.

Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs Roseanna Cunningham, Advocate General for Scotland Jim Wallace and Brandon Malone from the Arbitration Centre are speaking tonight at a drinks and networking event. Tomorrow, the Law Society of Scotland is holding a discussion panel with speakers Stephen Mayson and Fraser McMillan from the Pinsent Masons’ Glasgow office on the changing face of legal services provision.

Elsewhere in the programme I can see three other brave souls (take a bow Philip Rodney at Burness, Shona Frame at MacRoberts and Grant Campbell at Brodies) – but that’s it from Scotland.

It’s in the very times when things are tough that reaching out becomes more important than ever. After all, if Scotland and Scots don’t take part on the international stage then how will we know how we’re shaping up in the world, and how will the world know about Scotland? If lawyers from Mexico, Egypt, China and Korea (to name but a few) are willing to make the effort to come so far, then perhaps we need to rethink our perspectives. Raising its profile on the international stage can only boost Scotland’s legal services industry. At the very least we might set a challenge and aim to have ten speakers at the next IBA conference, and if you’re under 35 there’s the chance to compete for an IBA scholarship and obtain a free conference place by completing an essay on one of a range of legal topics.

Next year the IBA conference will be in Boston, but sooner 
or later thoughts will return 
to a European venue. The last time the IBA held its conference in Dublin was in 1968. In those days it was held every second year. The only time it was held in Scotland? Edinburgh in 1962. If the Olympics 2012 surely taught us anything, it’s that great success can only come from great ambition. After all, why not?

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Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley

What I know about fly fishing could be written on the back of a particularly small fly: or at least that was the case until a year ago, when my good friend Charles decided to introduce me to the noble art.  Now, my assembled knowledge on the subject could easily cover a small postcard, but already I’ve become hooked on the whole experience.

It is a pastime which doesn’t exactly open itself out for the interested amateur.  For a start, the equipment is rather expensive (think golf).  Then there’s the whole question of where you do it:  it’s not immediately apparent where all the trout and salmon rivers are in Scotland, in the way that golf courses for example are well indicated.  Then there’s the impenetrable lingo of those already steeped in the subject (you don’t say ‘good luck’ to a fellow fly fisherman, for example, the proper greeting is ‘tight lines’) and finally, if you have the kit, know where to fish and can understand what your fellow fly fishermen are on about, there’s the disappointing realisation that wild fish are rather difficult to catch.

So far, my fishing career has been limited to two days on the River Tay at Kenmore and one day on the River Lyon just a mile or so to the north; from which I can boast one rather modest wild brown trout (which was of course returned immediately to the river).

Standing chest deep in a river and repeatedly flicking a fishing rod is, I accept, unlikely to appeal to everyone; but there is something so vital about the experience, something that brings you so close to your immediate environment of river, rocks, trees and mountains (but not fish of course) and so far from the daily grind, that it becomes almost spiritual.  Time doesn’t just pass, it evaporates; and after a day fishing you experience an appetite for food and desire for sleep that is really rather satisfying.  Besides that, there is the fact that fly fishing takes you to places that you might not otherwise see (I had a very pleasant stay in Aberfeldy and visited Castle Menzies) and unlike golf, you can fish just as happily in the rain as the sun, a definite bonus in post-greenhouse gas Scotland.

All in all, I look forward to my next outing, and I’ve even purchased a copy of Trout and Salmon to improve my lingo – but I doubt I’ll ever progress beyond an enthusiastic amateur.

Fly fishing has a rich literature, and many of the best books were written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (pen name ‘BB’) who also wrote children’s classic Brendan Chase.  Here is a selection of three of his better known works on fishing available here:

In the meantime, however, Charles has lent me copies of his favourite works on the subject, which include the gloriously titled The Way of a Trout with a Fly by GEM Skues and Loved River by HR Jukes.  I’ll give you just a few lines from the first chapter of Loved River, which sets the tone rather nicely:

“You must not think of my river as one of those royal streams whose photographs appear so frequently in all the illustrated weeklies – generally, I have noticed, as a background.  No, my river is not like that.  Really it is very little wider, and just as winding, just as flower strewn and fragrant as a country lane.  And just as gossipy.  Sometimes, like the road, it encroaches on to the grassy banks, so that you can hardly tell which is grass and which is river; and like the road, too, it has rough places, delightfully rough and bumpy places which create groans or laughter according to your quality as a fisherman or of the car you own.  Perhaps you would call it a beck.  But it is a river; it is marked so on the map.”

Wonderful stuff.  Tight lines everyone!

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Somalia’s Pirate Kings

 Published today in The Scotsman

Somalia is a part of the world which has become synonymous with piracy, particularly after the ordeal in 2010 of British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler.  It remains a huge problem in the region (basically the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean) with EU data indicating seven large ships and 176 hostages are currently in the hands of pirates. There were more than 150 attacks on ships in 2011, a slight rise on 2010. It’s certainly lucrative, netting Somali pirates a staggering $146 million in ransom payments in 2011 alone.

A crackdown on an unprecedented scale (at least since the days of Pompey the Great) has followed, involving the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, the EU and Nato. Slowly, they seem to be gaining the upper hand.

At the same time as patrolling the seas, however, a number of authorities have been engaged in the prosecution of those pirates who have been captured. The US has been in the vanguard, with a Virginia federal court in April convicting Mohammad Saaili Shibin on charges of piracy. He was found guilty of being a “hostage negotiator” in the hijacking last year of the US yacht SV Quest, together with a German merchant ship, and sentenced this month to 12 life sentences. The four civilians on board the Quest were murdered, while those on the German ship were tortured in order to extract a greater ransom.

Those who did the boarding pled guilty and received life sentences, while those specifically involved in the murders will receive the death penalty.

The multilingual Shibin’s role as a negotiator, however, raises a unique point because he remained firmly on Somali soil throughout. His role, it seems, was to research the backgrounds of hostages with a view to calculating the appropriate ransom figure. Could he, therefore, be guilty of piracy? Is there such a thing as a land pirate?

Blowing the dust from the USA’s 200-year-old piracy laws, Shibin’s defence team maintain that only those who board and rob a ship on the high seas can be guilty of that crime. However, District Judge Robert Doumar, who heard the argument, opined that while an actual presence on the high seas was originally envisaged, the law had to evolve to embrace piracy in its modern form. The defence argument was therefore rejected.

Judge Doumar’s opinion appears to be strengthened by the fact that US piracy law otherwise refers to piracy “as defined by the law of nations”, and the main point of reference in international law is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which, at article 101, includes “facilitating” acts of piracy within the crime’s definition. While Judge Doumar’s opinion therefore appears correct, there is at least one other first-instance decision (of a Judge Huvelle) which reaches a different view. It accordingly looks likely that the US Supreme Court will in due course have to settle once and for all whether a pirate needs to take to sea.

As defence attorney James Broccoletti said: “He [Shibin] has never been on the high seas and so I think the Supreme Court’s going to have to decide in the modern era what piracy is, what the law of piracy is and what one has to do to be guilty of it.”

Of course, prosecuting attorney Neil MacBride was somewhat more blunt in his views post-sentence: “This case explodes the myth, if still it exists, that pirates are some kind of romantic, swashbuckling characters from Hollywood summer movies. This case showed that pirates are brutal, greedy, reckless, desperate criminals who will kidnap, torture and kill hostages in pursuit of their financial greed.”

Even Gilbert and Sullivan may have struggled to find the comic side of that.

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Edinburgh Fringe Review 2012: The Magicians of Edinburgh

  The Magicians of Edinburgh ***** (5 stars)

Venue: Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row; 15 & 23 August (5.45pm); 22 August (8.30pm)

This review published today at FringeReview.com and ThinkScotland

I followed the early evening crowd through Edinburgh’s famous Italian deli, not entirely sure what to expect from the show’s billing. It proved to be a superb combination of poetry and music by trio Dick Lee on bass clarinet, Anne Evans on flute and Ron Butlin reciting from his latest collection of poems, The Magicians of Edinburgh (2012, published by Polygon).

Ron Butlin was appointed Edinburgh’s own offical poet (or ‘Makar’) in 2008 after a lifetime in music and writing (including novels, short stories and plays); and since then he has celebrated the city’s highs and lows in some of the most original and evocative verses to come out of Scotland.

The opportunity to hear him talk about and recite his poems was something special and the music is more than just an afterthought: Butlin and Lee have worked together on operatic projects and both Lee and Evans are highly accomplished musicians. The combination of all three promised great things.

As the lights dimmed Evans and Lee took to the stage, beginning with their specially crafted piece ‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’, the lighter notes of the flute combining beautifully with the darker chocolate tones of the bass clarinet in an evocative melody. They were then joined on stage by Ron Butlin, who proceeded to take the spellbound audience through a selection of his works accompanied by Evans and Lee. The whole performance was magical, witty and a tribute to the poetic genius of Butlin: it is always special to have a poet recite his own work with special emphasis, but the experience was added to here by the beautifully arranged music. A truly wonderful experience.

Cosily, Butlin took the audience through the thoughts and inspiration for his poetry in between readings, and we were treated to trampolining bankers in ‘The New Town’s Response to the Threat of Global Warming’, ghosts and bogles in ‘Beware!’, a talking tram car in the gloriously Burns-like satire ‘Oor Tram’s Plea tae the Cooncillors O’ Edinburgh’ and the poets shining love of this city in ‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’.

Ron Butlin is the voice of Edinburgh; and for any Fringe follower intent on learning about the modern city behind the Festivals, or wishing to become the sorcerer’s apprentice, this production is a must.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2012: The Iliad, The Odyssey & All Greek Myth in 90 minutes or less

Published at FringeReview.com *****

Star rating:

Greek Gods ***** Greece Lightning ****  Moussaka & chips *** Greek Tragedy ** Greek Bonds *

LOW DOWN

An Olympian performance by a talented American college cast. Five Stars.

REVIEW

I have to admit a bias here, since I am an enthusiast for everything connected to the classical world – but it can be a daunting place, full of gods, nymphs, titans and heroes whose names and stories can quickly become confusing.  This comic play, written by Jay Hopkins and John Hunter, does for the pantheon of Greek myth what the Reduced Shakespeare Company has done for the work of the bard.  Add in a precociously talented student cast of ten from Marshall University West Virginia, creative costuming, good lighting, careful direction, stage management and sound – and finally an engaged audience packed into the church hall beneath Old St Paul’s – and you have a wonderful performance.

theSpace @ Venue 45 has a long tradition of hosting highly rated Fringe performances, and this production put together by Marshall University, under the auspices of the International Collegiate Theatre Festival, is another straight from the top drawer.

Hopkins and Hunter’s text gives the starting point, but it has been reworked here quite liberally to make it contemporary and relevant, with references to the London Olympics being an obvious example.  There was good engagement with the audience, with a jaw-droppingly good performance of Semele’s death scene by a front row Fringe fan (note to self, always sit at the back).

The play begins with a clock set to count down from 1 hour 30 minutes, then a galloping introduction to the twelve Olympian gods in the manner of a sports commentary.  Once we know who’s who, the cast embark upon the Iliad at breakneck speed but with the kind of well thought out comic timing and clever dialogue which would make Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane proud.  It’s that kind of funny, with good use of cardboard horses, coconuts and plastic swords.

With the Iliad dispatched the cast move on to Greek Idol: who is the most heroic of them all?  One by one Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Theseus and Odysseus offer their story until one is found fairest by the panel of judges.  Then the cast launch into the Odyssey, and Odysseus’ journey over the sea from the planes of windy Troy to his home in Ithaca and the battle to regain his own kingdom.

This college production successfully achieved what it set out to do, in the finest Fringe tradition, and richly deserves its laurel wreath.  The audience came away entertained and better informed about Homer’s classics together with the rich mythology which is found in Ovid’s glorious Metamorphoses.

There were a number of stars in this glittering amateur performance but it has to be said that Ethan Treutle, playing Zeus, Menelaus, Achilles and others stands out as a versatile comic performer: in the end, however, the entire cast deserves to graduate summa cum laude and return to the US tired but happy.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2012 Reviews: Appointment with the Wicker Man

Published today at FringeReview.comAppointment with the Wicker Man ***

Venue: The Assembly Rooms, George Street (3.10pm daily until 26 August)

Star rating:

Wicker’s World *****  Wickering Heights ****  Light my fire *** Wicker Basket Case **Appointment with the Dentist *

Low Down

A colourful (but mainly blue) send up of the 1970s film classic by means of an am-dram play set within the play.  A National Theatre of Scotland production.  Three stars.

Review

First out, a warning: there’s a muckle load of swearing in the play, a dash of nudity and enough bawdy scenes to make even a Dundonian blush.  Suffice to say, I wouldn’t recommend taking your auntie along to see it after lunch at Jenners.  If you can get past that, though, then this is good old fashioned laugh out loud pantomime stuff.  You really need to have seen the film though, in order to follow the production: but if you can’t manage that then at the very least you might see some of the film’s main scenes on You Tube.

On arrival, the stage has been beautifully set up with a giant Treasure Island-esque map of the mythical Summerisle, and the amateur “Loch Parry Players” have this year decided to put on a production of The Wicker Man.  Rory Mulligan (Sean Biggerstaff) is a bigshot Glasgow actor paid to join the Players and act out the role of Sergeant Howie together with the ‘amateurs’.  Local bigshot Finlay Fothergill (Greg Hemphill) plays Lord Summerisle, while ‘overactor’ Simon (Jimmy Chisholm) plays The Landlord.  Then there’s Fothergill’s rampant and curvaceous daughter Marie (Sally Reid) playing the landlord’s daughter, village simpleton Fran (Paul Riley) plays, well, himself, and the seductive Morag (Rosalind Sydney) is the post mistress.  To cap off the am-dram crew there’s the gloriously camp Callum (Johnny McKnight) in the role of director, who shouts stage directions to one and all.  As rehearsals of the play progress, however, Rory becomes paranoid that the Loch Parry Players are planning to make life imitate art and do away with him: a paranoia fed on his failure to get any meaningful explanation about what happened to Rodger Morgan, the actor he has replaced as Sergeant Howie…

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, don’t be fooled: this may look complicated and sound complicated but be under no illusions, it is complicated; and gets downright confusing towards the end.  The trick, though, is just to go with the flow and enjoy yourself.

The film The Wicker Man is of course deeply disconcerting; and without wishing to spoil it for those who might not have seen it, who can forget Edward Woodward’s performance when the moment of truth finally arrives?  Paganism in outlying Scottish communities is a strong theme (brilliantly explored by John Buchan in his novel Witchwood for example), and this production captures much of the downright weirdness of the mythical Summerisle and its sexually uninhibited residents, in a way that has the audience at times squirming, but more often laughing out loud.  The reality is, however, that it’s quite a task to combine laugh out loud humour with the chilling amorality of the film’s storyline, and in some places it unfortunately doesn’t quite gel.  It’s a pity, because there’s more than enough writing and acting talent here to have made something much more ambitious.  Overall though, good fun.

Posted in Edinburgh Fringe Reviews 2012 | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment