Friday, June 25, 2010

Full Monty at the British Library

'Are these lockers safe?' an American woman asked me. 'They used to have guards'.

I directed her to the counter-service where you hand over your bags and coats, as in a museum. Using the locker room means you don't have to queue at the desk and you can access the locker easily all day. 'Yes, but are the guards to be trusted?'

I supposed it's marginally safer to hand in bags at the counter, although thieves would have to be very nifty to jemmy one of the lockers open, given the constant traffic. Since free Wifi and chair-desks in the public areas were installed it's very busy.

The forecast of high temperatures this week was my cue to spend a couple of days in the British Library. I'm lucky because I can travel easily from Lewisham to St Pancras, changing at London Bridge onto the highly superior trains that go to Bedford. It's a shame that leg of the journey is so short, especially as it includes a free copy of The Times.

I wasn't tempted to spend time in the courtyard but the fine weather makes for a lively scene, especially since they opened the cafe. Given my heat intolerance, and the need to do some background research for a short story, I headed for a nice cool reading room.

At lunchtime I like Chop Chop on the opposite side of Euston Road, past St Pancras Station. Clean, bright and air-conditioned, it offers main courses such as chicken with chilli and rice for only £3.30. An added bonus for me is listening to Chinese teenagers talking in Mandarin.

After lunch on Wednesday, I visited this small but beautifully presented exhibition about Spanish American Independence 1810-1860. It's on the first floor, and really helpful since I've begun to read Latin American short stories. Mostly set in turbulent times, they have lots of historical references. I think this exhibition deserves a blog of its own, so I'll do that later.

My cup was really running over on Wednesday, if you'll forgive the pun. I left the library at 4pm and crossed to the pub opposite to catch the exciting second half of the England v Slovenia match. Excellent atmosphere and I got a good seat in front of the big screen. It made such a difference, watching with a group of enthusiastic supporters I'm wondering whether to go there again for the England v Germany match.

Might visit the library again, as its open on Sundays.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not Much of a Melting Pot: The Crucible at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

The Crucible's never been one of my favourite plays and I avoided teaching it as an A-Level set text. But the offer of cheap tickets and a favourite venue- The Regents Park Open Air Theatre - convinced me to go along. I'm glad did.

Arthur Miller's play, inspired by Massachusetts witch-hunts in 1697,felt surprisingly at home. At an 8pm start, birdsong and a balmy June evening made a pleasant backdrop to the rural setting. By the end, huge trees, visible only in inky silhouette, helped create a mood of claustrophobic menace.

Miller found parallels between this story and the purges of the American entertainment industry in the late 1940s/early 1950s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) interrogated writers and directors. Fuelled by a frenzy of anti-Communist sentiment and the fear of conspiracy, investigators threatened suspected left-wing sympathisers with imprisonment or blacklisting. Immunity could be achieved by implicating others.

The play's theme of personal integrity versus a dogmatic regime is seen to be of universal relevance, which makes it popular. Despite the supposed recognition in places like post-Mao China, it has always seemed to me a particularly American play.

The production design is simple - a tilted house-facade provided trapdoors through which characters appeared as if at times from some infernal depths. The grassy area around the stage was often filled with bonnetted women murmuring and gasping as events unfolded. Emma Cuniffe was strong as the wife of John Proctor, the flawed hero who makes a stand against the religious bigotry of the time. Patrick O'Kane attracted sympathy as the man broken by an almost impossible choice, and the ensemble playing was adequate. It's unfortunate that the individuality of the characters isn't sufficiently realised.