The Mystery of Love

The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death

Back from Latitude Festival.

My highlights were:


It Felt Like A Kiss

I was lucky enough to see Punchdrunk’s collaboration with filmmaker Adam Curtis, It Felt Like A Kiss, for Manchester International Festival. A magical mystery tour / ghost train through a deserted five storey office block, deep into the bleeding heart of pop culture, terror and the American dream. It was astonishing. Some have described Punchdrunk’s work as ‘immersive’ theatre – for me, it was more implicating. I am still reeling from the experience with a mixture of fear, terror, guilt and confusion. The video clip is ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss’, a song about domestic violence written by Carole King and performed by The Crystals. The terror behind the window.

Hamlet at The Donmar

Last night Sarah and I went to see Grandage’s Hamlet at The Donmar – well, The Wyndham Theatre anyway. I generally hate the West End, but there you go.
It was, of course, Jude Law as the Dane. I have a specific – if slightly tenuous – reason to see this: my mother was Jude Law’s drama teacher. It was, therefore, a real delight that Law was not only technically competent, but top-notch. An energetic, physical, full-body, sinewy performance which foregrounded Hamlet as a petulant teenager on the edge of violent disorder.
But I was particularly impressed by his speech. He managed that rare trick of rendering the twisted logic of the soliloquies fresh, original and psychologically realistic. There was real poetry there, too. He was, as they say, the star of the show – not as the Hollywood superstar, but as a plain ol’ stage actor.
I thought Neil Austen‘s lighting was also terrific and imaginative, whilst Penelope Wilton put in a strong performance as Gertrude. Kevin McNally‘s Claudius was a bit dull though – all of the politic bureaucrat with none of the sinister murderer.

Cultural Review of 2008

Based on my limited intake, here are my top cultural victuals of 2008. Immediate thoughts: (a) I don’t read enough fiction; (b) I have no idea what’s hip in music anymore (although to be fair the wondrous Lykke Li is quite hip, I think). Oh, and with this post, a change of theme for this is yogic.


Will Self Liver
Joe Dunthorne Submarine

D.S. Marriott Voodoo Hoodoo
Jen Hadfield Nigh-No-Place
Iain Sinclair The Firewall


Lykke Li Youth Novels

Orphans & Vandals
Jeremy Warmsley

Saul Williams @ Cargo
Lykke Li @ Latitude
The Renaissance Singers @ Temple Church


Barbican Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


BBC Spooks
BBC God on Trial
BBC Wallander


The Shoemaker’s Holiday @ The Rose
1927, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea @ BAC

Horse logic



What is it about horses? They’re everywhere, it seems.

What set it off for me was Paul Muldoon’s latest poetry collection Horse Latitudes. Then came Bat for Lashes’ haunting song ‘Horse and I’, from her Mercury Prize nominated album Fur and Gold. Next, I was hosting a reading in Whitechapel and introduced two young poets, Abigail Oborne and Ross Sutherland. Ross delivers an extraordinary piece, ‘Horse at midnight’, which comprises over sixty consecutive adjectives to describe a horse. Then came Abi’s ‘Portraits of a seaside town’, a poem ostensibly about Whitstable, Kent – but really about…. Yes, you guessed it.

After work I drink beer and talk about how I think everything is a conspiracy, ‘I mean,’ I say, ‘I mean, take horses for an example, if you look closely you notice that all horses have exactly the same face.’

Another time, the title track from Patti Smith’s seminal album Horses came on the radio, whilst I was reading the late Bill Griffiths’ Durham & other sequences. And there they are again.

There is the clipping, trotting, and pony and trap
draw up.
James and Lisa come to applaud
and the horse shakes a bit at the childer hands.

See? Horses are everywhere!


Assuming I still have my sanity, let’s consider why the humble horse might be so popular amongst writers and musicians – of any age.

According to Wikipedia, which, alarmingly, is fast becoming my sole source of wisdom, the horse (or Equus caballus) is a large, odd-toed ungulate mammal. The horse has played a vital role in the development of human societies – as pack animal, in agriculture and in war. And it’s widely believed that contact with horses can benefit people with disabilities.

Okay, so we’ve established that horses are indispensable to us humans, whether we’re trading, growing stuff or killing each other. But that last point – that horses can benefit those with disabilities – points to a deeper, more psychological and symbolic understanding of the horse.

The horse, it is supposed, is a noble creature, blessed with intelligence and unusual sensitivity. Under human control, they can be tools and companions – from Black Beauty and My Little Pony to Mister Ed. Eating the flesh of the horse (hippophagy) is considered taboo in many cultures. It’s makruh in Islam and treif in Judaism. There is a rich tradition of horse worship throughout the world, particularly in Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. In the sprawling world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the land of Rohan is home to a horse cult. Its leaders are ‘horse-lords’, its warriors skilled riders with armour decorated with horse symbols. (Also, see this short video on ‘horse eroticism’ in the Peter Jackson film of LOTR.) Like much of Tolkien’s writing, this is fantasy fiction based loosely on historical fact. Rohirrim culture is Tolkien’s reimagining of an idealised Anglo-Saxon world. Remember that the first Germanic warriors to come to Britain, at the behest of Vortigern, were a pair of Jutes named Hengest (‘stallion’) and Horsa. Well, that’s what the Venerable Bede says anyway.

And what about the giant horse symbols carved into the very landscape by our ancestors, like the one at Uffington?


Strangely, considering the long-established convention of the horse as noble and intelligent, an alternative tradition casts our long-faced friend as a symbol of lust, the animal metaphor for sexuality. Just think of the common phrase ‘unbridled passion’. The bridle controls the horse and ensures the dick remains safely within the trouser.

Chaucer, as you might imagine, loved this kind of stuff and would never have passed up the opportunity for a spot of comic word-play. In the Reeve’s Tale, the ‘swyving’ of the Miller’s wife and daughter by ‘yonge povre scolers two’ is provoked by the following episode, in which the Miller unbridles the students’ horse.

The clerkes hors, ther as it stood ybounde
Bihynde the mille, under a levesel;
And to the hors he goth hym faire and wel;
He strepeth of the brydel right anon.
And whan the hors was laus, he gynneth gon
Toward the fen, ther wilde mares renne,
And forth with “wehee,” thurgh thikke and thurgh thenne.

Thus perfectly setting the tone for the subsequent cuckolding of the Miller.

Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,
And on this goode wyf he Leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.

In a similar vein, Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête (1975) opens with explicit images of horse copulation – simultaneously setting the film’s uncomfortably erotic tone and prefiguring various human amorous encounters. Then of course there’s Peter Shaffer’s play Equus (1973), which counts that Potter boy amongst its recent leading men.

Study the English language (and no doubt others too) and you’ll notice that the horse features widely in its idiomatic expressions. Dark horse, high horse, horsing around, flogging a dead horse, from the horse’s mouth, even horseradish. I could go on…

Perhaps this is the best evidence of the way in which the horse has entirely pervaded human culture and society – as a tool, a slave, as animal companion and as symbol, a metaphoric screen onto which we project hopes, anxieties and desires. From contemporary music right back to the very first images daubed on cave walls. It’s a tradition with a future, that’s for sure.

Cultural (mis)adventures

Two recent adventures.

Two weekends ago I travelled up to Cambridge for the annual Procession for Advent at King’s College Chapel. This is less famous than the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (broadcast annually on BBC Radio since 1928), but no less atmospheric. With its giant nave and astonishing fan vaulting the Chapel is one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere. Beautiful in an imposing, awe-inspiring way. Which is presumably what its founder, Henry VI, intended. He was an acutely spiritual man and had he been alive would not, I think, have approved of the later additions to the Chapel by Henrys VII and VIII – dozens of clunky Tudor Roses stamped on the Chapel walls like giant stone logos, symbols of the burgeoning Royal authority over the Church.


Tudor Rose


My guide to the Chapel was my father, a former chorister and choral scholar at King’s. He informed me that when he was a chorister the ceiling was so black from the centuries of candle smoke that you could hardly make it out. I couldn’t help but think that despite the exquisite craftmanship of the vaulting, there must have been something profound about gazing up into the unknown dark, unable to capture with your eyes what your mind must believe is there. I always thought that the point of a spire is not to be seen.

The Service itself was spine-tingling, looping and swelling between long silences that seemed to fill every litre of air in the Chapel; from a lone voice in the nave to the grand communal singing of carols. It is the almost elemental relationship between the building, the choir and the congregation that makes this Service so special. At one point the choir sang from behind the closed doors of a side chapel, so that the sound was simultaneously near and far. And then they were right there, in front of you – a very human rag-bag of boys and young men assembled in the apse by Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi, somehow producing this extraordinary music.


* * *


And then there was Macbeth. Specifically, Rupert Goold’s production at The Gielgud with Patrick “make it so” Stewart in the lead role. First of all, let me get something out of the way. This was probably the most uncomfortable theatre experience I have ever had. Sarah and I were perched on the edge of the Grand Circle, on a hard bench of about seven seats (each worth £20). As we were acutely stage-left, we spent the entire performance leaning right forward with our necks twisted seventy degrees just to see half the stage. In their great wisdom The Gielgud had then decided to fly a rig of three of four lights from this point in the Grand Circle, obscuring the view by another twenty-five percent.

OK, I thought, so I can’t see everything, but surely half the enjoyment of Shakespeare is the language? I will simply close my eyes, sit back, and enjoy the poetry… Alas, no! I could hardly make out the pentameters between the constant coughing and sniffling. Whether it was the Stewart effect or the inclusion of Macbeth on this year’s A-Level syllabus, it was clear that this audience was not used to sitting in silence for long periods of time – something they might learn from the congregation at King’s.


 Patrick Stewart as Macbeth


Right, rant over. The play. Well, the first thing that hits you is the set, a bleak space surrounded by dilapidated walls and decorated with a rancid-looking basin, rusty radiator and a couple of rickety tables. An old-fashioned car lift with metal grilles is positioned upstage, the main entry point. It could be a communal shower room, torture chamber, prison cell or soup kitchen. It is of course all of these, and in the first scene a makeshift military hospital. Video is projected onto the walls, flickering with dark, vague images. The whole affair is like something out of the new wave of DIY horror films like SawCreep and 28 Days Later.

The Weird Sisters, whose lines are thought to be interpolations from a play by Thomas Middleton, are just as protean as the set. They appear variously as nurses, cooks and waitresses. In fact they seem hardly off the stage – ever-present reminders of Macbeth’s motivation and the ultimate vulnerability of his position. It’s hard to fault Patrick Stewart‘s performance. His seven years of exploring Galactic quadrants from the bridge of The Enterprise have clearly paid off – he displays the natural authority and stage presence required by the role, and delivers his lines with surety. Never too loud or too rushed, and with an instinctive sense of rhythm. There’s also something faintly schoolboyish about him, particularly in the scenes with Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth (whose performance was one of the few disappointments). But he’s equally comfortable playing the devilish tyrant and is brilliant in the banquet scene, reducing Mark Rawlings’ Lennox to a whimpering wreck when he snatches an unlit cigarette from his mouth and slowly deposits its contents over his head.

Talking of which, Goold’s production can be noted for its superb reimagining of the banquet scene, during which the ghost of Banquo – whose death Macbeth had ordered – appears twice. As the diners tuck into their first course (Macbeth at the head of the table with his back to us), a bloodied Banquo descends in the lift, steps out and, as Macbeth recoils in horror, leaps onto the table and strides towards him. At which point the lights go out, some video flickers, and the first half’s over – we applaud, then rush to the bar. When the second half starts, rather than continuing from where he’d left off, Goold rewinds the tape, stops and presses play. We’re back at the start of the banquet scene. The table is set, the guests welcomed, and Macbeth repeats his humiliation of Ross and Lennox with military precision. And this time, when they sit to eat, and the King startles from his place, Banquo’s ghost is nowhere to be seen. This bold move of repeating the scene allows us to view the action first through Macbeth’s eyes and then from the perspective of his bewildered court. The effect is astonishing, visceral. We watch the characters perform their actions and say their lines – as much ‘actors’ as Stewart & co. The flickering projections on the tiled walls of the set assume a symbolic status – we watch for glitches in the film, disturbances in the air, the moral malfunction at the heart of the play.

As I type this, my girlfriend, a PhD student at The Globe Theatre, informs me that Macbeth was probably performed for James I of England (VI of Scotland) at Hampton Court and that Shakespeare may have intended the character of Banquo to represent the ‘true’ Stuart line of Scottish rule. In Act IV the Weird Sisters show Macbeth a vision of eight Scottish kings – the descendants of Banquo. The last in the line carries a mirror. One imagines it being help up to James, ‘the wisest fool’. This political edge is important. Macbeth is a play about kingship – how not to rule. When Macduff is told that his family have been slaughtered, we are watching, waiting for his response. His is true emotional despair, the natural outrage of a good man, and here Michael Feast’s rendition provided one of the highlights of a production that comes highly recommended. Just avoid the ‘cheap’ seats.