Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Father at Theatre Royal, Bath

Spoiler alert – this review contains significant plot and production details, which you might prefer not to know until after you’ve seen the play.   If you have a chance though, do go to see it.

The father poster

This is not at all a comfortable play.  You simply never know quite what’s going on.  Almost all the basic details of the situation laid out in the opening scene, are contradicted in later scenes and many of the contradictions are never resolved.  We don’t know whose flat we’re in, whether the daughter is in London or in Paris, whether she’s married or divorced, whether her husband / partner is sympathetic or menacing, what has happened to a second daughter, and so on.  The same roles are played by different actors in different scenes. so we don’t even fully get a grip on who’s who.   Time is a fairly slippery concept too as scenes are interrupted or replayed, so we never really have a full grasp of time, place or person – fairly basic concepts in theatre.   The music between scenes becomes increasingly fractured and the furnishings gradually disappear from the set.

The aim of all this disorientation is to show life from the point of view of the father, who is gradually slipping into dementia and reverting to childhood.   He’s not sure who his daughter is, who the carer is, or where he is.  Everything keeps changing to the point that he questions everyone else’s sanity as much as his own.   It’s a convincing performance from Kenneth Cranham as the father, who wanders around the stage in pyjamas a lot of the time, making little sense of what’s going on, before ending up in a hospital bed, desperately calling out for his mummy.   Claire Skinnner plays his daughter (for most of the play!), which inevitably brought to mind the same actress trying to deal with both an ageing father and young children in ‘Outnumbered’, as well as some of the parallels with ‘King Lear’.

The father Claire Skinner Kenneth Cranham

In a Question and Answer session with the cast after the performance, one audience member suggested that absence of love was the tragedy of the play, but that didn’t feel right to me.  There was little doubting the love that Claire Skinner showed in her portrayal of the daughter, but love isn’t always enough in the tragedy of old age.   As I’ve seen with my own parents and others, the role of carer can be particularly thankless and another questioner almost broke down as she thanked the cast for their sympathetic portrayal of this.   But in the end that wasn’t really the point either.   This was about the tragedy of the parent, through whose eyes we were being asked to experience it, rather than that of the carer.   It succeeded brilliantly in portraying that, leaving all of us just a little bit more nervous about what might be to come, particularly those of us who are maybe closer to the high risk age than we might like to imagine.

The woodcutter’s song (The story of a lost orchard – Part 3)

Cutting down a tree is a big decision.  If you get it wrong, it might take 50 years or more to put it right again.   And anyway there’s a nobility and permanence about a mature tree, that can somehow make it feel a bit of a crime to cut it down.

When I was young, we had a children’s record – I think it was the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, where the woodcutter had a song that I can still remember:

Every little oak has a heart.

You gotta know the place to start.

I’d leave them standing if I could.

But things being how they are, we need the wood.

Red Riding Hood

But I had to leave those romantic ideas behind when I was later involved in the decision to cut down a row of magnificent Horse Chestnut Trees lining the Promenade in Cheltenham.   They’d been planted in 1818 and become part of the character of the town.  There was of course a storm of protest when it was suggested they should be cut down because of the risk of falling branches, but as a member of the Council I voted for them to go, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.  Apart from the safety aspects, it brought light into a street that had become rather gloomy, and allowed the smaller trees between them some space and some light to grow, so that 30 years on, those younger trees are now quite venerable themselves.   One day someone else will be faced with the decision on when to cut them down.


The Promenade around 1900. 80 years later the trees had got a lot bigger!

That episode convinced me that not cutting down a tree can be just as bad a decision as cutting one down.   And if we wanted to do anything other than create an unmanaged wood in our field, some of the trees had to go.  It wasn’t so much little oaks with hearts that were the problem, so much as a ruddy great Christmas tree.  I’ve called it a lost orchard, but in reality most of the trees there, including some of the largest and most prominent ones, were not fruit trees.  The field was rather dominated by an enormous conifer that looked as if it had been replanted after Christmas and then forgotten about.   Alongside it were two large ash trees, there were other mature trees around the edges, and scattered over most of the rest of the site were a lot of self-seeded saplings, many of them elder or ash.

As you might guess, we made saving the fruit trees a priority.  It clearly had been an orchard at some stage and although the trees were overgrown and smothered in brambles and weeds, they still seemed to be producing fruit.   We might end up having to replace them, but we’d give them every chance to redeem themselves first.

The next decision though was that the Christmas tree really had to go. Despite a certain grandeur, it looked totally out of place and was overshadowing the fruit trees, not to mention blocking the view of the neighbours.  The larger ash trees were reprieved, at least until we had a better vision of how we wanted the site to look, but several of the smaller trees needed clearing.

I’ve done a bit of chain sawing before, but enough to convince myself that in the interests of keeping all my limbs intact, it’s probably a job best left to someone else.  I’ve also put up a fair bit of fencing in my time, without ever quite cracking the best way of doing it.   So for a couple of days in the spring of 2014, I brought in Nick and Rich, two guys with much more youthful energy than me, much more skill with a chainsaw, and much better knowledge of how to put up a decent fence and gate.


No picture ‘before’, but this is the ‘after’

They got the Christmas tree down, which made quite a striking difference, and helped me to clear some of the bigger brushwood and obstacles at the top of the site.  Whatever the dangers and the drawbacks of a chainsaw, it’s certainly a lot quicker at some jobs than a handsaw and a pair of secateurs.   Between us we cleared enough room to get in a gate at the top of the steps up from the road and a first section of fencing running down from it.  It was only a first small stage, but for the first time in many years, it started to look as if someone might actually own the site and be interested in it.

This is the third post in a series about the restoration of an old orchard.  You can see the earlier posts at the links below:

The story of a lost orchard – part 1

The story of a lost orchard – part 2

Chevron Books

Of all the publishers who rushed to copy Penguin after 1935, one of the quirkiest was surely the Queensway Press with their series of Chevron books.   As far as I can tell Queensway was a fairly small-scale publisher, issuing classic reprints of Dickens and Shakespeare amongst others, as well as a series of typical pre-Penguin paperbacks with lurid covers and a price of 3d.   It was somehow associated with (or just another name for?) The Readers Library Publishing Co. Ltd., which in turn was associated with the printers Greycaine in Watford, set up in part by the family of the author, Hall Caine.  I’d like to know more about the links between these various businesses.  All Queensway and Chevron books seem to have been printed by Greycaine.

Queensway Edition Corsican brothers

A pre-Penguin Queensway paperback

When Penguin launched in July 1935 though, the UK paperback market was thrown into turmoil.  Suddenly illustrated covers looked horribly old-fashioned as well as down market.  Now standard designed covers were all the rage, and the standard price for a paperback was 6d.   In one sense, Queensway must have thought Christmas had arrived.  They could not only double the price of their paperbacks, but they could eliminate the expense of illustrated covers.  The difficulty was that they now had to cope with a formidable new competitor.  They also had to adapt in other ways to the new market conditions.  Penguin had introduced a new standard paperback size, colour-coded covers, a seabird as a logo and dustwrappers on their paperbacks – all innovations copied from the continental Albatross books, and all taken up by other competitors within a matter of months.

Queensway resisted the temptation to choose another bird as a logo (many others didn’t – Toucan Books, Wren Books and Jackdaw Books all appeared soon after).  They settled instead for Chevron Books and a complicated logo composed not only of a chevron, but also a small portrait (of a queen?) in a shield and two flowers.  They adopted designed covers and colour-coding for genre, as most others did, although to me the design looks over-fussy and not very attractive.  The first Chevron Books appeared on the market in February 1936, just 7 months after the launch of Penguin.  The selection of titles looked fairly similar  to Penguin.  Number 1 was ‘Grand Hotel’ by the Austrian writer Vicki Baum, followed by ‘Peter Ibbetson’ by George du Maurier, a late Victorian novel recently re-popularised by a film starring Gary Cooper.  In the first few months there were novels by Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton, Alec Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Jerome K. Jerome and Arnold Bennett, and of course there was a sprinkling of crime titles.

Chevron 2 with dustwrapper

A post-Penguin Queensway paperback

In two respects though Queensway chose to differentiate themselves.  Their early books were slightly smaller than the new standard size, and instead of using paper dustwrappers with the same design as the book, they opted for transparent dustwrappers, rather shorter than the book and with coloured stripes across them.   These were held in place with a small dab of glue, front and back, so that the coloured stripes lined up over the title and author name.  In some ways they were a throwback to the wrap-around bands, with which Tauchnitz had first introduced colour-coding.

The dustwrappers were very fragile, would not have lasted long after first opening, and of course are rarely seen nowadays.  They were not a success, and were abandoned within a matter of months.  They appeared only on the first 18 books and by August 1936 had been replaced by Penguin-style paper covers in essentially the same design as the books, except that the colour-coded stripes continued to appear only on the dustwrapper and not the underlying book.

Chevron 24 book   Chevron 24 with dustwrapper

Book and dustwrapper

The alternative book size lasted only a little longer, as far as volume 30, before it too was abandoned.  Presumably sales had not been going well.   The first 24 books had appeared in a rush between February and August 1936, but numbers 25 to 30 were not issued until February 1937 and by the time the next batch appeared in August 1937, there had effectively been a re-branding and a re-launch.   From volume 31 onwards, the books were branded as the ‘New Chevron Series’, with a new simplified design and logo, in the standard Penguin size, with paper dustwrappers in the same design and colour as the books.  The design looks much better to me, but frankly more Penguin-like and the colours are very Penguin-like orange, green and blue, no longer linked to genre.

New Chevron 35  New Chevron 36  New Chevron 48

New Chevron books continued from volume 31 up to around volume 115 by 1941 and several of the earlier books were also re-issued in the New Chevron format.  The progression of the series may not have been as smooth as it appeared though.  The linked businesses of Greycaine and Queensway seem to have run into serious problems, with a winding-up order for Greycaine in 1938.  The business continued to operate though in the hands of the receiver, and it looks as if the publishing business eventually became part of the Hutchinson Group, while the printing business was acquired by Taylor Garnett Evans and Co. Ltd.

New Chevron 1s 3d The Regent

New Chevron branded books continued to be issued well into the war though, even after the end of the numbered series in 1941.  Books priced at 1/3d and seeming to come from around 1944 still use the same design and branding, still refer to the Queensway Press, the Readers Library Publishing Co. Ltd and to Greycaine, although there are references to the new owners as well.

The story of a lost orchard – part 2

If you’re starting work on a gardening project that’s going to involve a huge amount of work and realistically take many years to complete, you face many physical problems, but the even bigger ones are psychological.  How do you maintain motivation when progress seems so slow and the work ahead so enormous?

Part of the answer is simply to ignore all the work to be done on the rest of the site and just focus on the little bit of land you’re working on at the time.  That way you can see some progress without having to consider how little it is in comparison to the overall task.   You don’t always need a sense of proportion.  Douglas Adams imagined the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’, based on the idea that if we actually understood the scale of the universe and how tiny we were in relation to it, it would drive us mad.  Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to ignore the bigger picture and focus on our immediate surroundings.

Total perspective vortex

I started trying to clear the undergrowth in the old orchard in early 2014, armed with not much more than a spade and a pair of secateurs.   This was roughly the equivalent of trying to cut the lawn with a pair of scissors, but that wasn’t going to deter me for a while.  It was a very wet winter and difficult even to get into the site past all the water that was pouring in at the top corner.  Digging a trench seemed like the best way to establish some control over it and I found that once I’d channelled much of  the water down the top bank, it just disappeared naturally into the soil.

That felt like a first small victory, but there was a bigger one to come when I tackled the other end of the top of the field.  I knew there was an existing pedestrian access there, and there was some evidence that there might once have been steps up the bank, but it wasn’t until I started to clear the area that I realised there was actually a full set of quite wide stone steps underneath the thistles and brambles.


Steps emerging from the undergrowth

So now I had some steps and it felt like there should be a gate at the top of them.  There are times when all the cod psychology in the world just doesn’t work.  For a moment I looked up and caught a glimpse of the enormity of the project  – and decided I would have to bring in some help!