Tuesday, July 31, 2012

RIP Chris Marker

Chris Marker. He was sui generis. RIP.

Sans Soleil. 1983.

In our moments of megalomaniacal reverie, we tend to see our memory as a kind of history book: we have won and lost battles, discovered empires and abandoned them. At the very least we are the characters of an epic novel (“Quel roman que ma vie!” said Napoleon). A more modest and perhaps more fruitful approach might be to consider the fragments of memory in terms of geography. In every life we would find continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae. We could draw the map of such a memory and extract images from it with greater ease (and truthfulness) than from tales and legends. That the subject of this memory should be a photographer and a filmmaker does not mean that his memory is essentially more interesting than that of the next man (or the next woman), but only that he has left traces with which one can work, contours to draw up his maps.
Chris Marker, introductory notes to Immemory (2002)
 [the quotation via Vitro Nasu]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry V

I really want to reserve judgement on Thea Sharrock’s version of Henry V that concludes BBC2’s Hollow Crown series, because I think the film warrants another, closer viewing. I won’t say I liked or disliked the film; my reactions are a little more complicated than that.

No pretty pictures here - I'm sorry. 

Brace yourselves for an epic post!


The Bare Imagination of a Feast

To my mind, Henry V is first about the power of rhetoric and only afterwards about war and its consequences.

I know the play practically begs to be considered and interpreted as either a pro-war piece of flag-waving jingoism or at the very least as the bravery of the few faced with an enemy that appears all but invincible.

But consider how the play begins: the Chorus asks us to use our imaginations to populate the stage with all that stagecraft cannot provide. If imagination is the first step towards empathy, the audience has already half been won over to the point of view the Chorus wants to present to it.

Throughout Henry V, the King employs all kinds of rhetorical strategies: he turns the Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls into a metaphor for retaliation; at the gates of Harfleur, Henry threatens to carry out the most horrifying excesses upon the people of Harfleur unless the Mayor surrenders – but precisely because he has made these ugly threats, he may have averted a greater loss of life; in disguise, the night before Agincourt, he argues with his soldiers (in what is, for me, the best scene of the play) about who should take responsibility for the consequences of war.

There are, of course, the two grandstanding speeches of the play: Harfleur and Agincourt. ‘Once more unto the breach’ and ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ They are, with good reason, the most remembered parts of Henry V. But let’s not forget that they are deployed by an embattled king with immense subtlety, to put heart into his dispirited soldiers.

If it were only Henry being rhetorical and strategic, the play would quickly grow tedious. The astonishing thing about Henry V is that for a play that mostly happens on grim battlefields and in camps, it has huge amounts of laughter and wordplay. The Princess Katherine has one scene with her lady in waiting that consists entirely of her learning to name various body parts in English. Some of this hilarity is carried over to the last scene, when Henry woos Katherine and their mutual deficiencies in language leads to some sweet and some risqué moments.

Captain Fluellen, in the King’s army, has a peculiar way of speaking that is meant to keep the groundlings in stitches; but under his rather odd word choices, he is always talking about the military conduct of kings in battles past, and about what is the just and right way to behave in battle.

In one scene, excised from the film version*, the French army has just killed all the boys guarding the luggage vans. This is a particularly dastardly and unchivalrous thing to do. The King will shortly be furious; for now, Fluellen is also angry, and Gower tells him that because the French, in addition to having killed all the boys, have also looted the King’s tent, the King has ordered that the throats of all French prisoners captured during battle be cut.

“Oh, ’tis a gallant king!” concludes Gower and we suspect there might be some sarcasm involved.

This is Fluellen (remember that we have just heard some very horrifying news):

Flu: Ay, he was porn at Monmouth, Captain Gower. What call you the town where Alexander the pig was porn?

Gow: Alexander the Great.

Flu: Why, I pray you, is not pig Great? The pig, or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations.

Yes, well. I won’t labour the point, but to me this teeny little bit says huge amounts about why Shakespeare peppers the play with wordplay.

Words are important. They can win wars. They can win people over. They can frighten, convince, woo and persuade. In Henry V, they are nearly as important as the battles themselves.

Churchill knew that when he allowed echoes of Agincourt to sound in his speech (with a line borrowed from Henry IV Part I**). Obama also knew it when he became this decade’s King Arthur as he addressed a freezing but hope-filled public one January day.


So Sweet a Hope

Making a film of a Shakespeare play is somewhat akin to making a graphic novel out of his work – a storyboard for a No Fear Shakespeare. There are all these scenes, all these words, but they just won’t fit! We could be here for hours, if we kept every word in the play. So of course there are excisions.

But if we take as given that cinema has its own language, as abstract as speech, as instinctively grasped and understood, then there must be ways to make the pictures say the things that words needn’t.

This has been part of the attraction of watching the entire series: to see what’s been left out and how the slack has been taken up by what’s left. There have been things I haven’t agreed with in the previous three films, but for the most part they have been immersive experiences.

Thea Sharrock’s Henry V is emphatically not an immersive experience. This does not mean I am disappointed – I think there were several interesting things she did that I will want to watch again closely – it just felt much more tentative than the other three films.

I don’t know much about Sharrock except that she has done a lot of very interesting plays on stage, and that this is her film/TV debut. Inexperience could account for a lot of what I find difficult to take in the film. Only lack of thought could account for the horrible, horrible music, which is the single most annoying thing about the film. If it wasn’t being laid on thick to emphasise important speeches it was generic, as if someone had picked out stock music from files marked War, Love, Funeral and so on.  I mean, Sharrock really should have trusted her viewers and her actors more.

Whatever the reason for Sharrock’s hesitant approach, its main effect was to drain the film of all the rah-rah chest-thumping of war. Someone apparently asked Sharrock whether she was going to tackle the film as pro- or anti-war and she was astonished that these were the only two options. It is to her credit that in her hands, this is less a film about war than it is about the futility of temporal ambitions.

The film begins with the funeral of Henry V, which Sharrock borrows from Henry VI. If Henry IV Part II, in Eyre’s hands, began with a Previously, Sharrock’s film begins with a flash forward, to a time when the fruits of all Henry’s labours have ended in death, and in the loss of the realm he has spent this entire play fighting for. In effect, everything that happens – all the battles, all the speeches, the wooing of Katherine, the hopes Henry had of uniting the two kingdoms under his rule – all of it is for nothing.

It is, actually, the only way to read the play – if this is to be the last episode of a series that calls itself The Hollow Crown. Richard, feckless though he was as a king, was prescient about how little kingship is worth:

[F]or within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchise, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit, –
As if this flesh, which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable; and humoured thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle-wall and – farewell, king!

Having begun with a farewell, where do we even go from here?

Sharrock could have had Henry blithe and unaware of his mortality; this would make the end that much more shocking. She chooses, instead to have the fire in the belly of the king severely banked by a certain – what’s the word for it? I’m sure there’s one in Greek – awareness of endings, of what Donne called ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’.

Put another way, Sharrock’s Henry, Tom Hiddleston, is a man who seems to be aware that he is playing in a tragedy, while everyone else is under the impression that they are participating in a romance or an adventure or even a comedy.

If Sharrock did nothing else right – and there is plenty she could have done better – she did this very well indeed.


Odious Comparisons

My major problem with the film was the lack of thought given to shot-taking, lensing and suchlike.

There were two scenes that I thought were very interestingly composed and shot: the tennis ball scene and the penultimate one where Henry asks Katherine to marry him. In both, there are often more than two people in the frame, at different depths of field. In each scene, the camera takes one full circle around a stationary character, following Henry as he speaks to this mostly off-camera person. (In the proposal scene, he is accompanied – with comic effect – by Katherine’s lady-in-waiting, Alice).  In the first, in conveys menace and in the second, a kind of nervous restlessness***.

The relationship of camera to actor to mise-en-scène is rarely used as well in the rest of the film. There are some acute cut-aways and voice overlaps, and for the most part these are okay. But for most of the film, the shot-taking is unimaginative and stodgy.

This is a real pity, because I couldn’t help comparing Thea Sharrock to someone like Julie Taymor.

I see Taymor as basically a theatre person who has been presented with the whole box of tricks that is cinema and she is so delighted with the gift that she wants to try everything out at once. Sharrock, on the other hand, seems to be the kind of director who would rather use one thing at a time and see how it works and decide if she wants it or not. Until then, the rest of the stuff just sits there.

If Julie Taymor is a kind of Orson Welles, Thea Sharrock is like an even earlier pioneer of cinema who hasn’t yet evolved or theorised her style; is intent upon the subject and hasn’t considered the medium’s own plasticity.

Perhaps the one true measure of the success of a film is the effect is has on the viewer. Despite all its faults, Henry V left me feeling immensely sad – and, like a good tragedy, cleansed. And that, I think, is as it should be.


Epic though this post already is, I must mention the other book I’ve been reading through the watching of this series: Juliet Barker’s Agincourt is a fascinating account of Hal’s early years, his preparations for Agincourt and the battle itself.

The real Henry V was not as he is depicted in Shakespeare. He was 16 when the Battle of Shrewsbury was fought; far from being the wastrel he’s made out to be in the plays, he campaigned hard and for many years in Wales; took his place on the Council when Henry IV was ill and introduced the kind of fiscal discipline that the reigns of both Richard and Henry IV severely lacked.

Among the hugely absorbing things described in the book:

Hal took an arrow in his cheek at Shrewsbury, and while the shaft was removed, the arrowhead was lodged in his cheek for weeks. The King’s doctor finally devised a kind of tong-cum-screw thingy with which he pulled out the head. The wound was treated with honey, apparently, and herbs, for weeks and weeks. And, of course, no anaesthetic.

Speaking of arrows, Barker’s account of how arrows were made, how many arrows a King’s archer must be able to shoot, how the arrows were stockpiled and so on, had me riveted; it was as if I was watching The Dark Knight Rises on an Imax screen.

Bonus comic, for being patient: The Agincourt Gambit

Shockingly good read the book is, I promise you.

Ok. I’m done now.


* I don’t approve of a lot of the excisions. I think Fluellen should have been given his proper due. And the film need not have so literally assisted the Chorus in its descriptions. But the most egregious deletion is Henry’s long and complex argument with his soldiers the night before Agincourt. This speech - I must emphasise that the scene itself isn't deleted - is absolutely essential and so much else could have been cut to make place for this one.

** “England never did owe so sweet a hope”.

***Henry V is, as Sellar and Yeatman might say, A Restless King. Hiddleston never sits still for a moment. He sits on his throne maybe three times, each time for less than half a minute. For the rest of the film, he’s prowling around, or riding, or falling to his knees in prayer. Or talking, of course.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Visitation: Brigit Pegeen Kelly

The Visitation

by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

God sends his tasks 
and one does 
them or not, but the sky 
delivers its gifts 
at the appointed 
times: With spit and sigh, 
with that improbable 
burst of flame, the balloon 
comes over
the cornfield, bringing 
another country 
with it, bringing 
from a long way off 
those colors that are at first 
the low sound
of a horn, but soon 
are many horns, and clocks, 
and bells, and clappers 
and your heart 
rising to the silence 
in all of them, a silence 
so complete that 
the heads of the corn 
bow back before it 
and the dog flees in terror 
down the road 
and you alone are left 
gazing up
at three solemn visitors
in a golden cage
beneath that unbelievable chorus of red
and white, swinging
so close you cannot move
or speak, so close
the road grows wet with light,
as when the sun flares,
after an evening storm
and you become weightless, falling
back in the air
before the giant oak 
that with a fiery burst 
the balloon
just clears.
I read Kelly’s poem ‘Song’ several months – maybe more than a year ago? – when Aditi Machado wrote about her. I love what little I’ve read of her work and wish I could read more.

Someone said recently, quoting Salinger, that poets are always taking the weather so seriously. In that spirit of seriousness, I give you this gorgeous poem.

Also, it reminded me of this. (Yes, well. Sorry.)

A Variety of Doms [full version]

A week ago, Mint carried a conversation between Ranjit Hoskote and me, mostly about Dom Moraes and the new Selected Poems that Hoskote has edited. That was, of necessity, a shorter version of the conversation we had. I thought I'd put up the longer version here.

A Variety of Doms 

 Sridala:  I've just finished reading your Dom Moraes: Selected Poems, and it's a wonderful work: the Introduction and Notes, as well as the selection of poems. Tell me how the project began and what made you choose Dom Moraes.

 Ranjit: Sridala, thank you so much for your generous response to my Dom Moraes: Selected Poems. At least since 2006, I'd been mulling over the fact that we do not have a critical annotated edition for any Anglophone Indian poet. By that time, many of our first-generation and even some of our second-generation figures had passed on: Ramanujan, Nissim, Dom, Arun, Shahid among them. And, apart from Vinay Dharwadker's work on Ramanujan, the others were represented by various separate existing editions, collected volumes, and the posthumous publication of unpublished work.

So there was my preoccupation with the annotated critical edition as a form. It was given further impetus when I realised, with a shock, at a reading in an academic context that the poems of some of our older contemporaries would quite simply be undecipherable to teachers who were not inside of the subculture of poetry. Not because poets write deliberately in code, but because they dazzlingly reshape language and compress experiences and insights, and use references in elliptical ways. Every labyrinth needs a thread!

As to why Dom – it is because he, with Keki Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla and Agha Shahid Ali, are the poets I have felt closest to in the tradition of Anglophone Indian poetry. I have been endlessly fascinated by Dom’s poems ever since I first encountered them. Also, I share with him a fascination with classical mythology, with history, and also have shared his intense sense of being a nomad. I identify strongly with several of his key, formative experiences – my own career has not been unlike his, in terms of the editorial work, much international travel and research. And, like him, for political reasons of my own, I am critical of the nation-state as a constricting entity. Speaking of which, one of my stated objectives in framing this selection is to demonstrate very clearly the political Moraes, and the intimate connection between his poetry and his prose as he traversed the ground of the political in both practices.

SS: It's certainly true that there's very little scholarship on Anglophone Indian poetry. It's the reason I find your Introduction so interesting, because - as you yourself say - it comes close to literary biography. And that's a method of entering the work of any writer; a method that students of literature are familiar with. And yet, there's so little of the biographical approach to Anglophone poetry here, don't you think?

RH: I completely agree with you. Anglophone poetry in India has not been fortunate in the quality of criticism it has received. Much of it has emanated from ill-informed academics who have little understanding of poetry, or have ideological axes to grind. We have had to suffer several generations of mindless nativist critics, for instance. The finest criticism of Anglophone poetry in India has come from practitioners themselves.

As to biography, Ramachandra Guha has famously suggested, and demonstrated, that biography is not a genre at which South Asia excels. We oscillate between celebrity journalism at the low end and hagiography at the high end. Archival access is weak, hearsay rife, and the historian's tools of interpretation, analysis and contextualisation are not accorded the importance they deserve.

SS:  The thing about the biographical approach is that Dom makes it easy: with three autobiographies, later collected into one volume. I remember reading A Variety of Absences a few years ago and it was so engaging and showed Dom as a politically engaged person – as you so rightly point out – and far from the Anglophile dilettante he's often made out to be. This is not to, in any way, diminish the extent of your research and scholarship on Dom. I was talking to Adil Jussawalla about this in January at the Hyderabad Literary Festival, and he also talked about the lack of resources for research into the work of poets; and he especially mentioned Dom and asked where one would find his journalism if one wanted to look.

It seems to me that as Anglophone poets of the next generation, we have to work not only within a vacuum as far as primary material goes, but we also work as if it were the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind: a permanent blank slate.

RH:  The availability of three memoirs by my subject was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, of course, it was fantastic primary material, and it helped me to map his poetic journeys in relation to those he made in his other careers as an international correspondent, a war reporter, a cultural diplomat, a freelance writer, and a maker of documentary films for television.

However – a big 'however' – Dom is not uniformly reliable in his memoirs. His account of both sides of his family can be misleading and inaccurate, and coloured by the circumstances of his difficult childhood. His recollection of events is sometimes significantly at variance with the recollections of others involved in those events. He can be elliptical or notational, or can telescope circumstances of space and time.

I had to develop a chart with various time-lines marked on it: one time-line for Anglophone poetry in India, another for post-World War II British poetry, yet another for political events around the world, yet another for India. In addition, I cross-checked Dom’s memoirs against the account of Ved Mehta, who shared some of Dom's early return journeys to India. Also, and very importantly, I was privileged to have several conversations with Dom's aunt, the wonderful Dr Teresa Albuquerque, who made family archives and her own work as an urban cultural historian available to me. Also, vitally, I sifted through the personal archive of Adil Jussawalla, and could develop contexts for the cuttings and invitations, the ephemera and the records and reportage that Adil has put together. The literary biographer is also a historian working with a jigsaw of material.

For instance, when I'd put together some of Dom's articles on the immigrant crisis in the UK in the late 1960s (from Adil's archive), I began to sketch out the context of that period. From another part of my life, there came back memories of Enoch Powell, whose obituary I had written in my role as one of The Times of India's leader-writers and one of its resident obituarists. And I began to link the dots between the immigration crisis and Dipak Nandy, who Dom included in his list of globally important thinkers when he compiled Voices for Life. ‘Why Nandy?’, I asked myself. Back to the salt mines of research – back to the debates of the late 1960s, and so back to old issues of the Labour Monthly, and Nandy's profoundly prescient writings on class and race, labour and resistance in late-1960s Britain.

 SS:  This is fascinating, your journey through Dom's work and his life. It's interesting that you say Dom is often unreliable – aren't all memoirists? Erica Jong called it 'inventing memory'.

RH:  Indeed, all memoirists are unreliable – that comes with the territory, and we go along because it can be such a delightful ride. And it is not entirely fabricated either! You have to balance the delight with sober factuality! That's why I've tried to cross-check every reference from Dom's memoirs with other extant accounts of those events, histories and assessments of the period or place. This is why so many other characters enter these pages – Gregory Corso, Lucian Freud, Hannah Arendt, Francis Bacon – to name only a few.

SS: Ranjit, you occupy a unique position in the canon, as it were, because though you belong to our generation, you've spent so much time with Nissim, Dom and all the others. You'd be the right person to talk about lineages, legacies and traditions, such as they are, in our poetry. What fascinates me about this question of legacy is that of erasure, which as an idea has begun to obsess me. What to leave out and what to leave for the world to see? Who claims legacy and how?

RH: Yes, I suppose I occupy a peculiar place in our unfolding history. I came of age, as the sorcerer’s apprentice, in close proximity to Nissim, Dom and Adil. And because my first book was published rather early, when I was 22, I belong to the publishing generation of 1989-1992, alongside some contemporaries who are nearly a decade older than I am. While I was still in my early 20s, I worked closely with Dilip Chitre on several editorial and translation projects. And Arun Kolatkar, in his quiet way, was a source of inspiration to me through my 20s and 30s. Arun very graciously designed the cover of my third book of poems, The Sleepwalker's Archive, this process involving conversations with him about everything from leaf venation through Amazonian musical instruments to the theories of Velikovsky. I’m not launching out in autobiographical vein here! This is just to point to the close, substantial, material associations that I’ve had the privilege of having with an older generation of practitioners. To me, that’s a strong, living definition of a legacy—living in, and carrying forward the impulses of, a community of practitioners, an experimental continuity, a gharana.

SS: It occurs to me that in creating a volume of Selected Poems, you will have done your own kind of erasure, if that's not too strong a word, on Dom's work. Could you talk about why Selected and not Collected?

RH: Dom already had two editions of Collected Poems -- the first was the 1987 edition, which marked his 'comeback', if you will. The second was the posthumous 2004 one, which appeared a few weeks after his death on 2 June 2004. So it was important for me to work with the 190 poems that he evidently wished to be represented by, at the very end of his life. Of these, I set myself the task of extracting what would be the absolutely non-negotiable, essential Moraes. It gave me the occasion to ask: what was the most important curve of evolution within Dom's poetry? I detail much of this in the Introduction -- but briefly, I decided to eliminate most of the early apprentice work, Dom in his Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite mode, and to focus on the compelling, finely worlded voice of experience through the 1980s, with some fine pieces from what turned out to be the last, very fertile period of his activity. So yes, it was very important for me to propose a shape for his career, as seen retrospectively. As a curator, I saw this as a task equivalent to planning a posthumous retrospective of a great artist's work.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Planting books

I like Thursdays. Significant things happen to me on Thursdays - sometimes important, often life-changing, mostly pleasant. Thursdays are to my week what Februaries are to my year.

So after the rage and restlessness of yesterday, I was delighted to wake up and find this in my mail: a link to Richard Brautigan's 1968 Please Plant This Book. (Thanks, KM). It's lovely and sweet and if 1968 and the hopes it contained for the 21st Century seems impossibly innocent, I have to remind myself that the world was not a particularly pleasant place then, just as today is not particularly hopeless.

Regenerating anything - even words - by planting them and watching them grow, grow out and disperse, has always been an attractive idea. This book must have been a lovely artefact; it still is a lovely set of poems.


The time is right to mix sentences 
sentences with dirt and the sun 
with punctuation and the rain with 
verbs, and for worms to pass 
through question marks, and the 
stars to shine down on budding 
nouns, and the dew to form on 
                       Richard Brautigan, 1968


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part II

[with a small diversion via Heyer]

Henry IV Part II begins, puzzlingly, with a recap. Previously, a super says, and takes us through the important plot points of Part I. If anything could emphasise how far from the stage this four-part series is, how carefully conceived for the small screen, here is proof. Richard Eyre treats the beginning of Part II as he would a soap opera. As though in the space of only a week our attention-deficit memories need to be massaged awake.

That was my first thought; but I wonder if I groaned in disappointment a little hastily. Title sequences in films are often very revealing. So much of what is to come is precis'd in the first couple of minutes. What Eyre does is encapsulate a whole play/film into two minutes and in retrospect, it's quite well done. It's less about bringing viewers up to speed - who's going to come in on Episode 3 of the series, after all? - and more about laying out what was important about the previous film. The recap emphasises the King's disappointment in his son, Hal's wildness, Falstaff's standing in for his father, and - after the rebellion led by Hotspur - Hal's transformation into a warrior prince. We finish with Falstaff stating his expectations of Hal, because clearly, this last is going to be important. It sets up Falstaff's eventual, inevitable downfall.

Falstaff, without Hal - upon whom his gaze snagged often and with some desperation in Part I - is a much more complex character in this film. Barring two scenes with Hal, Falstaff is seen with all kinds of people and in all kinds of contexts and this allows him all the freedom to be bombastic and plausible, often weary and sometimes tender.

But this film belongs to Irons. As the King beset by rebellion, wracked by guilt and troubled by ill-health, still worrying about his heir - lost to him almost as soon as found - Irons is superb. His anger often borders on the querulous but that is the rage of a man not in control of his body. Because these plays are about kingship and mortality, the health of his body and that of the kingdom is identical.

Possibly my two favourite scenes in this film are the two major soliloquies: the King's 'uneasy lies the head that wears the crown' and Hal's speech when he takes away the crown. Eyre stages these two speeches so well: instead of letting them talk to the camera, or in voice over, he lets them say their piece to themselves, and allows them all the time they need.

Irons murmurs to himself and wanders through his Palace as if sleep-walking, past his bedroom (and a bed he has no use for) where a musician plays a soft tune, past guards falling asleep on their feet in chilly corridors but who draw themselves up as the King passes, and to the throne room, where at last he sits in lonely state, unable to sleep or rest.

In the other Hal comes to sit with the King who is asleep after recovering from a fit, and finds the crown on the pillow, and, thinking the King dead, takes it away. Hal also makes his way to the throne room where he wears the crown. This scene is both moving in its tenderness and cringe-inducing for how much Hal is exposing himself to the King's wrath and how invidious his position is, how difficult to believe his excuses.

If I watched nothing else in the film again, I would it watch it for these two scenes (though the scene in Eastcheap with Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet comes a close third).

What is interesting about the play itself is how Shakespeare displaces the political into the personal. The reign of Henry IV was fraught with so much rebellion: Wales, the border towns of the North and the marauding raids by the French along the coast. And yet, all the battles in the play are deflected: Northumberland retires to Scotland in deference to the pleas of his wife and Hotspur's widow, even though his rage at the death of his son was intemperate and extreme. What could have been another pitched battle between the armies led by the Archbishop of York and his allies on the one hand and John of Lancaster and Westmoreland on the other, is averted by what can only be called treachery.

This frees up Shakespeare to meditate on what, for him, is the more important matter: how to be a king. If not by divine right - as Richard II claimed his kingship - how will Henry IV, a ursurper, justify his reign? If Hal has a better right than the King, because his kingship will be inherited and not snatched, then isn't his premature assumption of the crown a kind of treason? These questions and those of allegiance, loyalty, betrayal, guilt, expectation and duty play themselves out in the very human interactions between characters both major and minor.

Hal's transformation into the austere but - by most readings - just king that he becomes, is chilling. If I was slightly uncertain about Hiddleston's Hal in Part I, I think he really owns the character in this film. Though he makes few appearances, every scene makes large demands on his range as an actor and Hiddleston delivers, with subtlety and depth.

[diversion into Heyer begins]

While I was watching Henry IV Part I & II, I was simultaneously reading Georgette Heyer's My Lord John. It was her last, and unfinished book. Her ambition was to actually write a three book series covering the life of John, Duke of Bedford (who, in the play, is Lancaster) which roughly coincided with the entire period from the last years of Richard II's reign to the death of Henry V and John's guardianship of the infant King Henry VI.

For various reasons, mostly financial, Heyer had to keep writing her Regency romances and could work only intermittently on her Plantagenet trilogy. It's a pity, because what fragments of the books there are that make up the single unfinished volume, are characteristically well-researched. Heyer always wore her scholoarship lightly and managed to make the dullest military campaign thrilling because of how well she sketched the characters involved.

My particular weakness is for historical fiction and I can very easily be beguiled into total immersion by one well-told tale. So I've spent the last couple of weeks not just reading the Henriad, but also Heyer, and also another related text on the Battle of Agincourt. In jumping ahead of the tale, as it were, before this Saturday's Henry V, I muddied the waters somewhat but I regret nothing.

There's a lovely bit in My Lord John where Heyer allows the reader into the head of the newly-deposed Richard as he attends the coronation of Henry Bolingbroke. Richard, even in Shakespeare, is a difficult man to empathise with (though I think Ben Whishaw's performance will now be the gold standard for me). In this little first-person diversion, just a page and a half long, Heyer manages to create a character who compels our sympathy and understanding, and is more subtle - if still capricious - than we had supposed.

My posts on Henry IV Part I & Richard II.

The Anti-RTE Segregationists

This Saturday past, I attended a talk by Shanta Sinha and others on the Right to Education Act. The session was supposed to have more stake-holders involved: Principals of schools, perhaps school children themselves, other educationists. Instead, there were the usual suspects: members of Apna Watan, which had organised the talk, and a few others.

Shanta Sinha said, commenting on the audience, that she wished there were more non-converts, because she was tired of speaking only to those who were already on the same page as her on the RTE.

If only she knew. Five or six people stood up to ask questions at the end of her talk, and all of them proudly declared their position as non-converts. One Principal of a school made me feel physically ill by talking about how her school has adopted 11 schools in Mehboobnagar district and how there were no toilets even because, you know, Bad, Naughty Government.

Another lady asked earnestly, what was to be done about all these entitled children who passed every grade no matter what, because schools were no longer allowed to fail anyone.

As if adopting rural schools can shift the reponsibility of this elite school to admit 25% of non-fee-paying children into their own school slap-bang in the middle of Banjara Hills.

As if asking pseudo-pedagogical questions is proof that the RTE cannot work.

If we want to know what all these sophisticated diversions amount to, we only need read this piece in today's Hindu. Read and tell me it doesn't make you sick.

Four children have been forced to attend their school here in humiliation after the private institution allegedly cut off tufts of hair on top of their heads. This was done to reportedly distinguish these children, admitted under the Right to Education (RTE) quota, from other students. This shocking fact was disclosed here on Tuesday. 

According to the parents of these children, all in standard I in the school at Nandini Layout, the children admitted under the RTE quota are made to stand separately during the assembly and their lunch boxes are checked before they enter their class. They allege that the names of their wards have not been entered in the attendance register. The school reportedly makes them sit in the back benches and they are not given any homework.

One of the arguments I have heard in recent months, piously uttered, is that it is this generation of children that will suffer the most by being taken so far out of their comfort zone.Someone at that talk even said that when these children grow up, they don't want to go back to their villages because they no longer fit it.

To all of which Shanta Sinha said that it's not the children of the poor who are not used to being out of their comfort zone - every day, everywhere they go, they face discrimination.

This story makes me so angry. If this is not segregation, I don't know what is. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part I

At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare brings on a Chorus that urges us, the viewers, to use our imagination to fill out the stage with battlefields, soldiers in their numbers and kings.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoof i’ the receiving earth;
For tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.

For those of us used to reading, rather than watching the plays performed, this hardly needs to be said: of course we imagine everything. But when we begin to watch a performance, the demands on our imagination becomes variable. The proscenium stage still asks us to supply with our mind’s eye what it cannot provide in detail or in quantity.

Film is a different beast altogether. It can be as particular or as stylised as it likes but more often than not it falls on the side of particularity and realism, and leaves less to the imagination than the stage or the page.

I was thinking of this Chorus when I began watching Eyre’s adaptation of Henry IV Part I and going over some portions of Richard II. When Richard returns from Ireland and makes his ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ speech, he is drowned out by the roaring of the sea. In all the times I’ve read the play, it never once occurred to me – though I knew this was happening on a beach – that the sound of the sea would be so overwhelming and must be taken into account while listening to this fantastically self-pitying screed. Right there was an instance of my inadequate imagination being shown up by a careful filmmaker. How would it be exercised in Henry IV?

The film began, I thought, promisingly: the first two scenes are intercut with each other in a way that Shakespeare himself might have approved of. The contrast between the dour and bleak palace and the noise and warmth of Eastcheap was quickly drawn. Because so much of the first part of the play depends upon performance, the imagination perforce takes a break while we pay attention to the actors. But once the Battle of Shrewsbury began, I thought the film lost much of its force because it had neither the choreography nor the numbers to make it film-real. This would have been a good place to stylise the action and let the viewer’s imagination supply the numbers and the blood.

My biggest problem with the film, though, was the interpretation of Falstaff. Falstaff is nothing if not an anarchic counterpoint to kingship’s roll call of honour, valour and fairness. He is the opposite of Henry IV: cunning, venal, guilt-free in the performance of his petty crimes; what's more, he thinks that ‘honour is a mere scutcheon’.

In this version, played by Simon Russell Beale, Falstaff is a needy old man who is constantly watching Hal to measure the extent of his affection and loyalty. In playing Falstaff as an alternate father-figure to Hal, Eyre and Beale have unfortunately leached the - shall we say - glorious purpose from Falstaff's character.

That fantastic set-piece at the Boar’s Head, when Falstaff urges Hal to rehearse his interview with the King in a little play-within-a-play and an audience-within-an-audience, things go well initially: Falstaff plays his King for laughs and he gets them. The audience is raucous and bawdy and Hal insolent as he offers to 'depose' Falstaff and play his own father. As Hal ascends the throne, Falstaff flounces in Hal’s discarded leather jacket most endearingly (reminding me strongly, for some reason, of Hoshang).

Tom Hiddleston as Hal mimicks Jeremy Irons as the King so well that it might well be the best inside joke of the film. Hal piles insult upon insult and Falstaff preens as if they were compliments. And then, when it comes to the ‘banish the world but not Jack Falstaff’ bit, it all falls apart: music swells over the last part of this scene and we have an egregious close up of Falstaff, all teary-eyed and emotional and it is such a huge misreading of the scene: if anyone is aware of the finitude of this friendship, it is Hal and not Falstaff.

The other great misstep with Falstaff is to make a voice-over of his Honour soliloquy. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with the use of the voice-over – Hal’s at the beginning worked well enough – it is completely misplaced on the eve of battle. After all, Falstaff’s plays the coward and the braggart completely unapologetically through the battle. He drinks sack, plays dead rather than fight, and claims Hotspur’s corpse as his legitimate booty, in the teeth of Hal’s almost-disbelieving astonishment. His ‘the better part of valour is discretion’ speech is addressed direct to the camera.

Which is why the effect of Falstaff walking along the camp watching the soldiers prepare, and say his Honour soliloquy in voice-over while he looks grave, is more farcical than tragic. It was counterfeit Battle of Helm’s Deep.

But what was lost in Falstaff was more than made up for in Harry Percy. Joe Armstrong chewed up every scene he was in and I was half-wishing that Eyre had kept every line in the play, even if it added another hour to the run time, if it could keep Percy on screen for longer.

On the whole, though, despite the less than compelling Falstaff and the indifferently staged battle scenes, there was plenty to like and think about in the film. And of course, the central relationship being between the King and Hal, those scenes were well thought-out and played; in any case, Hiddleston has always played troubled relationships with fathers rather well* and this one is practically textbook.

Though the play doesn’t indicate as much, I thought it was clever to emphasise the King’s illness at the very end of Part I, in preparation for Part II.

Henry IV Part II screens on BBC2 tonight.


*That's probably a separate post in itself; perhaps another time.

A Variety of Doms in Mint

My chat with Ranjit Hoskote in today's Mint. Will post the whole thing later, but here's a taste:

Dom Moraes was the youngest poet and the only Indian to have won the Hawthornden Prize in 1958 for his first collection of poetry, A Beginning, but few today will have read the poems from that book. Anthologies, when they include Moraes’ work at all, tend to skim over his earlier work. A Penguin Modern Classics edition brings together, for the first time, selections from all of Moraes’ work. From the plaintive “I am in love, and long to be unhappy” of 'Sailing to England' to the merciless self-awareness of the last sonnets, this book gives us the essential Dom.
I asked poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote, who edited this volume, about his journey through Dom Moraes’ work. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

[further edited for this post]

Ranjit Hoskote: Dom, with Keki Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla and Agha Shahid Ali, are the poets I have felt closest to in the tradition of anglophone Indian poetry. I have been endlessly fascinated by Dom’s poems ever since I first encountered them. Also, I share with him a fascination with classical mythology, with history, and also have shared his intense sense of being a nomad. I identify strongly with several of his key, formative experiences—my own career has not been unlike his, in terms of the editorial work, much international travel and research. And, like him, for political reasons of my own, I am critical of the nation state as a constricting entity. Speaking of which, one of my stated objectives in framing this selection is to demonstrate very clearly the political Moraes, and the intimate connection between his poetry and his prose as he traversed the ground of the political in both practices.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Carson's Antigonick

Excellent essay by Pierce Penniless on Anne Carson's Antigonick here:

One of the unsettling pleasures of tragedy is to see the ineluctable consequences of action work themselves out on stage. Real life is rarely so neat. Antigone contains a famous crux about theatrical timing, about when Eurydike exits the stage to her suicide. Eurydike is not a character you notice much: she spends most of the play inside the house, exiting only to hear news of her son’s suicide, and then wanders back inside to kill herself, cursing her husband. I say ‘wander’, because it is not clear in the original quite when she exits the stage. There is theatrical potential here: she can drag herself, heavy with fate, back into the oikos, while conversation continues around her silent form. Carson transforms her short, unexceptional ten lines into a jagged meditation on the whole play – it is an exceptional piece of writing, one of the moments in the text that Carson’s critical and poetic faculties are seamlessly blended:
Carson’s version here is far from the speech in the original, retaining only Eurydike’s relationship to the messenger, and foregrounding the figure of the messenger as the bearer of off-stage (literally ‘obscene’) horror to those we see. There is much to unpack: the reference to Woolf and marginal women, or the grammatical pun on Kreon’s moods tensifying the play – Kreon has been throwing around verbs which come back to haunt him in different moods. The reference to autoimmunity and the obscure shadows of private and familial relations picks up both the inscrutable riven motivations of Antigone herself and Kreon’s accusation, her willing severance of social obligations. Her horror of what she’s about to hear is all too obvious – so much that she scrabbles for the unreliability of the messenger rather than face the truth.

But time and law dance around each other in Eurydike’s speech. Eurydike, for all her marginality, is the only figure who understands what Antigone is, and her relationship to law and the city: she is its product and its negation. As such, the only thing the polis could do would be to expel her. She is irrecuperable. What is the nick of time? The nick of time is something that does not exist for Eurydike, nor anyone else in the play. The nick of time is that swerve which averts disaster for all on stage, something done at just the last moment which resets all the assumptions and trajectories of the play. The nick of time is the essence of comedy; in tragedy it does not exist.

My attempts to wheedle a review copy out of New Directions failed. I still want this though.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

Like a good girl, I have been re-reading each of the history plays that make up BBC 2's Hollow Crown series - Richard II through to Henry V - before each week's broadcast. My much-handled and tattered copy of Richard II, which saw me through both school and college provided me with many hours of simple, wholesome entertainment: my notes, highlighted lines, biographical lists, dates, obssessive lineage making etc.

Also, at some point while studying Richard II, I seem to have read Heyer's My Lord John with fangirly attention, because (and this makes me blush slightly) the first time John of Gaunt makes an appearance, I have scribbled Belsire! next to his name. Yes, with the exclamation.

So watching Richard II turned out to be easier to do than watching Saturday's Henry IV Part I, for reasons I won't go into (which is to say, I haven't even begun watching Henry IV Part I).

 Ben Whishaw was just simply brilliant. I loved watching the expressions flicker across his face as he decided from moment to moment who he wanted to play - he was a total drama queen, totally hypnotic. For the rest, I thought there were several nice touches (the St. Sebastian portrait, the monkey in the joust scene, the general campiness of the courtiers) but I disapproved of the decision to make Aumerle Richard's assassin, instead of the play's Exton.

Hope I manage to watch Henry IV Part I today; have just watched about five minutes of it and was pleased with the intercutting between King and Hal, but more on that film later.

For entertainment, please read Hello, tailor on Richard II (and thereafter the Henry post, if you wish). Also (I need hardly say this any more, I feel) Supriya's Hollow Crown posts are lovely.

Can I just say: I am really enjoying the Shakespeare re-read. Can't think why I don't do this once a year.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Entries invited

It's that time of year again (and these days I know when people land up on my blog searching for Srinivas Rayaprol) so mark your calendars for deadlines, sort through your poetry and remind your publishers:

The 2012 Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize [pdf link] and the 2012 Shakti Bhatt First Book Award invite entries.

Good luck!

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Some days start out better than you expect; and when your expectations are remarkably low, it doesn't take much to make the day better: some clouds, a good hour of yoga with the body acting like it means to keep going for a while longer without much external help.

And then shit happens. What it is is irrelevant.

And then the day is shot to hell and you remember why you planned not to get up at all and just let it all blow over.

(And it gets so you can't even think in anything but cliches, which is just another - don't say it! don't say it! - nail. No, okay, won't say it.)

So. Aaaargh!
Cute photos of kittens welcome. Also chocolate. Train tickets would be even better. Or phone calls.



This is not the post I'd imagined in my head. Sorry about that.