Category Archives: Culture

A Sisyphean Task


Every time a new ‘lobbying scandal’ breaks, it reminds me of that Greek chap Sisyphus, sentenced to forever be pushing a boulder up a hill. Each time he makes it to the top, the boulder gets away from him – poor old Sisyphus – and rolls back to the bottom.

The analogy comes to mind every so often when we hear our politicians promise a ‘root and branch review’ of lobbying, or to ‘stamp out corruption’, once and for all. This is a task doomed to only partial success. It’s not a finite action, but rather an effort that has to be constant and recurring.

The central, unavoidable problem is that people in positions of power will always be vulnerable to being bribed. No political system is exempt from this potential pitfall. For things to operate in a non-corrupt way requires rules, and the integrity of all parties to stick by them.

Actually, most of the big companies professionally engaged in lobbying activities – in representing the interests and concerns of their clients – are very well behaved. And although you wouldn’t know it from the denigration they get in the press, most MPs are too. (I remember an interesting conversation with an Italian who said his favourite thing about the UK was our honest politicians. It’s all relative you see.)

Which is why last week’s Panorama – which sent the metaphorical boulder tumbling back down to the bottom of the hill, and did something similar for MP Patrick Mercer – was particularly frustrating. Instead of exposing or uncovering real corruption, all the programme did was manufacture a crime and then point to it as evidence of widespread malpractice.

One idiotic politician does not a broken political system make. To suggest such a thing is just lazy journalism. Anyone can invent a fake business and dupe a foolish person – and I’m not trying to exonerate Mercer here, who does seem to be particularly deserving of his fate. But if this little exercise in entrapment had been carried out by the police, rather than a journalist, the value of the evidence gathered would have been seriously compromised.

So for me, rather than casting doubt on the general trustworthiness of politicians, instead the integrity of the press is called into question.

Panorama is meant to be serious investigative journalism. This was just an exercise in sensationalism, and further evidence of the depressing dumbing down of our mainstream media. And it was irresponsible. Feeding the public mistrust of politicians doesn’t serve any of us well.

Further, it didn’t tackle the much more interesting – but difficult – question of corporate influence on government, which MP Douglas Carswell alluded to within the programme. This is a valid point.

There are a number of large corporates in the UK that enjoy particularly close relationships with government – and arguably because their (business) interests, and the national interest (security, the economy) are closely aligned. In these relationships no money is changing hands improperly – but defining ‘how close is too close?’ is an interesting question.

It’s a shame that instead of really interrogating this, the rest of the documentary busied itself with persuading a little known MP to accept money on behalf of an obscure (and fictional) interest group. And presumably also spending a lot of money flying the journalist out to Fiji – quite unnecessarily.

If this was an attempt to bolster democracy, it failed. We are all left none the wiser. The thorniest issues went untouched. Sisyphus toils on.

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How the mighty have adapted


I recently had the privilege to see inside Cliveden House, once a residence of the Astors, now a luxury hotel. I went there primarily to interview MD Andrew Stembridge in relation to a piece of research on service design, but did not want to miss the opportunity to have a look round this historically significant and beautiful house.

(NB Cliveden is most often noted now for its part in the Profumo affair: the location of THAT swimming pool. Which is all I’m going to say on that front.)

I had actually been to visit the gardens – a National Trust attraction – before. On that occasion, being welcomed as a member of the public into the wonderful landscaped grounds with all their follies and exotic planting and statuary, there was a sharp contrast with the inaccessibility of the house. Now run as a private (and very sumptuous) hotel, it is beyond the reach of lowly National Trust daytrippers. Looking along the tree lined vista to the facade of the house, I wondered if this is what mere mortals felt like in the old days, gazing wistfully at the great house and only able to guess at what went on inside.

It also reminded me of the reciprocity that exists in the composition of house and gardens of this kind – both designed to frame the spectacle of the other. Being enveloped in the gardens is one thing, but their entire arrangement can only be realised from an upstairs window, when they reveal themselves to be one vast canvas. Unfortunately, at Cliveden one can only appreciate both dimensions of this relationship if you can pay.

I have mixed feelings about this inaccessibility: my initial sense of exclusion was moderated after a tour with the very lovely and knowledgeable Operations Manager, and not just because I had been admitted inside.

A little potted history of Cliveden: an aristocratic residence placed at just the right distance from London to receive Royal visits, it was absorbed into the Astor dynasty in 1893, and given to Waldorf and Nancy Astor as a wedding present in 1906. When Nancy finally died in the ’60s it was given to the National Trust, briefly became an educational establishment, and finally turned into a 5-star hotel.

Houses of this size and age frequently seem to risk bankrupting the families that run them. The theme running through many big house histories is that of the labour of love that eventually overwhelms its creator. They are essentially giant works of art, and the detail and care and investment is mind-boggling. Anyone who has ever tried to work out how to arrange furniture, or what sort of picture might suit a wall, can imagine that the composition and construction of these homes – stuffed full of art and artefacts – is a life’s work. This is why the resource of the National Trust is so valuable, in providing a way to preserve these artworks, and at the same time democratise them, opening them up to the public. Indeed one could argue it is only by democratising them in this way that the old elitism they represent can be reconciled with the democratic sensibilities of the 21st century.

The difference with Cliveden was the Astor’s stipulation that the House must not become ‘a museum’. The property was given to the Trust on the condition that it continue to be (as it had been all its life) a place of parties and fun. Its current incarnation as a luxury hotel lives out this stipulation. But it also maintains its elitism.

This raised an interesting conundrum for me, as it must have done for the National Trust. The Trust, for all that it preserves the rich materiality of these places, is rarely able to keep their meaning intact, precisely because their mission to ‘preserve for the nation’ transforms it. The life of such properties, the private histories and political significances, founded on class and elitism, is normally at least part of their interest and the reason they were worth preserving in the first place. This ends as soon as they pass into public hands and inevitably become museum showpieces: they stop having their own life, or start having a very different one at least.

With somewhere like Cliveden, that deeper meaning, the life beyond the bricks and mortar, was only ever accessible to the well-heeled few – and this (with the exception of a scheduled house tour on Thursday afternoons) continues to be the case. Whilst it would of course be a shame if the house were lost altogether, and there is a certain romantic attraction to the idea of the living artwork, the question for me is: what is the nature of the value to the public in preserving a place so far beyond the reach of most? Tricky…

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A taste for old stuff

Stools by Artek 2ndCycle
At a recent work event – a seminar on the industry growing up around recycling – I found my mind wandering back to a book I read at University, called ‘In Praise of Shadows’. It’s a short but compelling essay, by a Japanese writer, lamenting the disappearing aesthetic sensibility of old Japan with the invasion of western-style capitalism in the early 20th century. He writes beautifully about the particular qualities of architecture, objects, art – and women – that used to be the ideal.

He characterises the difference between the aesthetic of Old Japan, and new Westernised Japan, as a penchant for craftsmanship, maturity, and the effect of shadow, as opposed to mass manufacture, novelty and light. In the old world, material objects and surfaces that had been allowed to age, that had acquired a patina – where years of use and the marks of hands were visible – were the things that were valued. Whilst some of his descriptions seem grotesque – a description of a bony geisha with blackened teeth sticks in the mind – the book is a valuable read for calling into question the ubiquity and subjectivity of western ideals of beauty.

But what has this got to do with recycling?

I was dismayed to learn in the course of the seminar that something like 48% of plastic bottles still end up in landfill. This can’t possibly be because we don’t possess the technological capability to recycle all plastic bottles. Of course it’s partly a question of systems, and the will of manufacturers to reclaim materials. But this is slowly changing. Greater attention is now being drawn to the issue of waste because of the economic impact of throwing so much stuff away. Not only is it a long term environmental hazard, it is a criminal waste of material resources. Raw materials are getting more expensive; and China owns too large a proportion of rare earth material sources for comfort. 80% of manufacturers said that materials shortage was a risk to their business in 2012. So material recovery from waste is becoming an increasingly lucrative business; and condemning perfectly decent stuff to landfill no longer makes good business sense. For its own part, government is now plowing investment into research and innovation that will lead us towards the holy grail ‘circular economy’.

The trickier challenge is persuading the consumer to do the right thing with their rubbish. Or, to not create so much in the first place. Part of the problem, the source of our buy-use-dispose habit, is our love of new things, our susceptibility to fashion, and the need to discard the old that this induces. What is important about ‘In Praise of Shadows’ is the suggestion that this ‘neophilia’ is not innate, rather a product of capitalism.

Obviously, it is convenient in a capitalist economy for consumers to want to buy all the time. The cycles of fashion grease the wheels of the economy. What is interesting is the degree to which our tastes – aesthetically and emotionally – have been tailored to suit the needs to the market. You can see this clearly being set in train in the nineteenth century, when women in particular were actively urged to decorate their homes in the latest mode, tricked into thinking it was a sign of patriotism, or of their own creative expression. This has been the subject of recent TV series based on Zola’s ‘Ladies Paradise’ and on the early days of Selfridge’s, where shoppers are subtly emotionally manipulated to serve commercial imperatives. The persona and treatment of the female consumer can be clearly traced from these pioneering days to the present. Little has changed.

For a long time now men and women have been programmed to constantly consume. Our social status and success is determined by our material possessions, and often by the degree to which they conform to ever changing fashions. You can’t keep up with the Jones’s if you don’t keep shopping, and you can’t fit more things in your house unless you throw some other things away. Thus rampant consumerism generates waste.

The design industry, for all its virtues, is a servant of this machine, invented to tap the ambitions, hopes, desires of consumers, and to persuade them to buy when there is no real material need. Take the example of chairs. We should really stop designing new chairs. We already have plenty, and there must be a style out there for everyone by now. No one needs to design any more chairs, and yet at design fairs every year, dozens of new chairs are ‘released’ on to the market. And, if they are popular enough, they make designers and manufacturers pots of money.

The problem now is capitalism has eaten itself. It’s running out of its own fuel. The neverending supply of consumer goods may be threatened as material resources become exhausted, but we all still want to buy new things. So what do we do? How do we persuade people to buy quality and buy once? Can we make design for longevity fashionable again? Can we replace neophilia with nostalgia?

I don’t believe we are a completely lost cause. This idea – of objects accruing value as they age – already exists in pockets. One can pay a fortune for antiques. The vogue for vintage seems to be enjoying unprecedented popularity at the moment, spearheaded by designer Wayne Hemingway. A few manufacturers are capitalizing on this: Artek, a Danish furniture company, have just started a new line of business, 2nd Cycle, reselling old models of their own pieces. And this imperative can make a difference to how we design in the first place. Students at Brighton University are developing products that incite a greater emotional attachment from the owner – for example, a teacup whose pattern emerges over long months of use.

But these are all niche markets, when what we need is a mass movement. It’s a tricky question: after years of being persuaded to value novelty, how long will it take us to learn to love old things again?


Filed under Culture, Design, feminism

Find a happy place (Copenhagen)


Recently the OECD relaunched its ‘quality of life’ index – a survey across a range of criteria intended to reveal more about the success of a nation than its GDP, by taking into account the well-being and happiness of its population. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are all in the top 5. The UK is outside the top ten.

Now I know one mustn’t grumble. The UK (and especially London) is a wonderful place to live for many reasons. But on visiting any of the Scandinavian nations the well-being difference is utterly tangible, even to a tourist. And if I had to pick my favourite European city Copenhagen would take the prize: it’s just so goddamned civilised.

I’ve recently paid a second visit to the Danish capital. The first saw the ending of an ill-advised and short-lived dalliance. The second, thankfully, was altogether more agreeable. But it is to Copenhagen’s credit that I loved the place in spite of some rather awkward company first time around. The second visit was positively blissful. Despite being a capital city, with all the cultural, historical, political and royal baggage that entails, life here is uncluttered and unhurried. If London is sprinting, out of breath and never quite catching up with itself, Copenhagen is strolling at a stately pace. If London is leaning over its handlebars, weaving head down in thick noxious traffic, Copenhagen is sitting upright, looking all around, gliding along above gently turning spokes. My brisk pace is bred for London. The boy’s relaxed gait – which I normally poke fun at as ‘dawdling’ – found its home in Copenhagen’s cobbled streets.

Its human scale is of course to its advantage, with all the interest of an imperial power condensed into a walkable area. But in fact, it is a city as much of cyclists as pedestrians, which plays a significant role in humanising the urban environment. The traffic system gives preferential treatment to two wheels over four. There are more bicycles than cars, and seemingly even more than actual people, if the ranks along every street are any indication. Perhaps the apparent surplus is a clue to why they are so often seen standing solo, propped up and untethered. In London such an unlocked bike would be gone in an instant. And they come in every form imaginable, customised and hybridised for the easier transport of children, pets, luggage, shopping. The sit-up-and-beg model so associated with Amsterdam is the favourite though – by far the most comfortable ride.

And then there is the light. I remember my first visit – in late November – as almost entirely in the dark. The streets were shining wet and empty of people, although inside was all warmth and twinkling lights and cooking smells. By contrast, this second, midsummer, visit took place in endless hours of daylight – or that odd halflight that, filtering in through curtains, convinces you it’s nearly time to get up at 2.30am. The buildings are adept at bringing the scarce northern light – watery even in the middle of summer – inside. In the Glyptotek’s winter garden it falls through a high glass dome onto palm fronds and marble statuettes. In Thorvaldsen’s museum it makes the sapphire window reveals glow luminous, and catches on his ivory-limbed figures, lined up against dark walls like pearls dropped into mud.

This visual quality is not one that translates well through holiday snaps, or indeed postcards. It is an impression that, like the city, takes time to appreciate. But you soon come to suspect that the utmost care and humanity lies behind every design decision, or moment of urban planning. Things work seamlessly, from the trains to the always-excellent coffee. If it is possible for a city to have a personality, Copenhagen is measured and thoughtful. And neither afraid of new technology nor in awe of it. Rather it is put to use at the service of life being lived. Old rubs up easily against new. Students glued to their apple device of choice in a bookshop-coffeeshop-bar, and an offshore windfarm, are somehow not incongruous with the still delightful Victorian pleasure gardens at Tivoli.

The Danes seem to live as well outdoors during the lighter months as they do indoors – defining cosiness – in the winter. Pavement cafés are all equipped with heaters, soft blankets and even softer lighting. Their urban gardens are green and leafy havens, liberally spinkled throughout the city – like those of the Royal Library somehow hidden right next to the parliament. We sat on a bench and watched two politicians slowly circling the pond, deep in conversation of presumably some pressing matter of state, under the frowning gaze of a bronze Soren Kierkegaard.

I must admit as a tourist their healthy approach to work-life balance can catch you out. Most museums don’t open until 11am, frustrating when, in an attempt to see as much as possible in two days, you’ve dragged yourself from your hotel for a 9am start. But I found this easily forgivable. I’d start at 11am if I had the choice. The boy summed up Copenhagen’s attitude in his own way: in London pints are served in straight-sided buckets designed for the most efficient consumption of the largest quantity of beer. In Copenhagen they come (in metric quantities), cool and amber, in all manner of elegant vessels – flutes, stemmed chalices, behandled glass mugs. No, it’s not technically necessary, but it does make life so much nicer.


Filed under Architecture, Culture, Design

Design Means…

Made in Peckham, by Hendzel and Hunt

What do composing the audio-brand for a Chinese TV channel, building furniture from old pallets, and making ice cream in liquid nitrogen have in common? These were all activities described by my fellow panelists Joe Glasman, Jan Hendzel and Mike Knowles at a discussion earlier this week at Goldsmiths University. The rather open topic of the debate was ‘Design Means…’, with a more provocative subheading: ‘Can anyone be defined as a designer?’

Earlier in the day, in preparation for this debate, I had been reading a paper about the vexed question of ‘design thinking’. This concept suggests that there is some unifying capacity that underpins all design disciplines. It has been used – mainly by certain design consultancies – to promote the idea that designers’ skills might be valuable beyond the traditional realms of design: such as business management, for example.

There are indeed numerous examples of designers doing good work outside of the discipline they trained in. But it is still a somewhat flawed concept: one learns to design, and practices design, in an iterative loop of thinking and doing. It is entirely questionable whether the thinking element can be meaningfully divorced from the doing. One can’t move a design problem forward by thinking alone. But when the doing bit happens in such different spheres as cooking, cabinetry and composing, can there still be said to be a common process?

By the evidence of the debate on Monday night, I would say, tentatively, yes. As I listened to Joe Glasman explain the process of composing music and sound for various clients, I understood him to be describing a design process. And there were clear similarities to how the other speakers described their own practice: Mike Knowles of culinary troupe Blanch & Shock on how to make the perfect meringue; furniture maker Jan Hendzel of Hendzel and Hunt on constructing a table and chairs from reclaimed materials. All are directing their creativity and craft expertise to a desired (and sellable) end, working to certain constraints and briefs.

Exploding cake, by Blanch and Shock

What so evidently unites them, beyond an inclination to be creative, and a client whose needs have to be met, is the craft expertise underpinning their work. They have all, painstakingly in some cases, amassed their ten thousand hours of practice, and more. This incredible breadth and specificity of knowledge about their domain was immediately apparent in the way the spoke. And also – to me at least – in the quality of their output. This is what qualifies them for the title of designer.

But ‘design thinking’ potentially challenges the supremacy of the professional designer. It implies that non-designers might learn to do it, and that there are ‘design tools’ which could be wielded by anyone, regardless of their professional background. This is particularly relevant in relation to the question of design in policymaking. If policies and public services are conceived of as ‘designed’ processes, that implies the need for some new skills to be embedded across the public sector. But as the public sector is not about to fire all its economists and hire a load of designers (crudely), one seemingly obvious way to get more design nouse into the public sector is (re)training of existing public sector workers.

Is this valid? Can anyone be a designer if given the right toolkit, without those years of practice?

I suspect there is a happy medium somewhere, but another commonality between my fellow panellists was what they saw as a lack of appreciation of their hard-won mastery. Joe Glasman commented that the development of some DIY design tools (such as photoshop) has led many people, clients included, to believe they really can do it themselves, rather than paying a professional. And Jan Hendzel commented that it was always a battle to convince clients of the cost incurred in hand-making beautiful furniture.

Advent Calendar Cabinet, by Hendzel and Hunt

I would suggest this is because, at present, design sensibility within the general public is minimal. And I would question whether it’s possible for anyone to develop an appreciation of a skill without understanding it a bit, and having, at some point, had a go themselves. So I think it’s important for everyone to have had some experience of designing, specifically in order to be better commissioners and clients. But this doesn’t make them designers.

Whilst I am inclined to take a very broad view of what design means, I don’t believe that just anyone can qualify as a designer without some hard graft. My favourite definition (perhaps because the latest and newest) is to liken design to physics: an attribute of almost everything, evident everywhere in the man-made world. And while most of us may understand it a bit, and all of us are undoubtedly affected by it, not everyone can be a physicist. Or a designer.

Many thanks to Lior Smith and Marion Lean for organising this debate.


Filed under creativity, Culture, Design, Food, Music, Politics

No aspiration without inspiration: women, boardrooms & fiction

Over the course of a few days in January there was something of a Nordic-themed media flurry. David Cameron invited some of his Nordic counterparts to a summit in London, before flying out to participate himself in the Nordic Futures Forum. Top of the bill in those discussions (apart from ‘how to steer an economy safely through a recession’, and ‘how to run an efficient and trusted welfare state’) was the question of how to get more women into the workplace and boardrooms.

Norway seems to be taking the hardest line on this, having already introduced enforceable quotas. But this is a treating-symptoms-rather-than-cause measure, and the causes are, at present, poorly understood. Given how keen he seems to learn, Cameron might heed the significance of the appearance of a certain freckle-faced red-haired girl in the debate. Pippi Longstocking – a staple character in Swedish childhood – cropped up in a paper presented at Davos, entitled ‘Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State’.

The ‘Pippi’ analogy in that case was about a particular conceptual balance between individual, family, and state. Quoting from the paper:

Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society.

Underpinning these politics is a particular notion of social relations:

Authentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.

Whilst there is a clear role for the state (enabling as many people as possible to be economic producers), there is also a heavy emphasis on personal capacities and behaviour (taking the initiative). For those familiar with Astrid Lindgren’s books, it should be clear that Pippi is a trope of such independence and individualism. She is also – and this is the key – a hugely engaging and inspiring fictional character.

For those not well acquainted, a quick resume: she lived in a tree-house and held decadent tea parties; she had an assorted band of animals as companions – including a monkey in a little red jacket, and an old horse; her absentee father was a pirate who occasionally dropped off a few bags of gold; she had a wonderfully eclectic wardrobe, including the impractically long socks for which she is named; she was freakishly strong, could walk up walls (with the aid of some special glue), turned washing the floor into a domestic alternative to rollerskating, and was forever saving the day. She is every child’s dream of parent-free, unsupervised adventure and fun. As many children have, I loved her.

I can see now that she is something of a feminist icon. But at the age of 7, I wanted to be like Pippi not because I was self-consciously a feminist, rather because she did heroic things, had a good time, and was unquestioningly the author of her own destiny. I wanted to be like her, and emulated her accordingly, pigtails and all. I’ve lost the pigtails now, but a certain strong-willed-ness has remained with me into adulthood.

Fiction can be (is) incredibly powerful in suggesting possible lives. Fiction draws the reader in, invites their imagination to pick up where the words on the page end. It troubles me, therefore, that I can’t think of many grown-up (female) characters who are exciting in the same way as young Pippi. I am no longer so enamoured of the tea-parties-in-trees lifestyle, and I am missing a replacement.

In fact, I am burgeoning on despair at the utter lack of equivalent heroines in adult fiction. What happens to Pippi and her peers when they hit puberty? Too often, as soon as girls are old enough to fall in love, the pursuit of said state invariably becomes the story. Other things might happen along the way, but bagging a man is the ultimate goal. (The reverse is rarely true for male characters in fiction. James Bond normally bags a woman – or rather several – as a sideshow to a much grander story.)

The sad thing is I’m not sure James Bond and Carrie Bradshaw are accurate reflections of how much men and women care about love and relationships as opposed to the other things in their lives. I’m not sure it’s naturally the case that women are more prone to fixating on men than the other way around. But it does feel as though there are legions of chick lit heroines – and their romcom film equivalents – who can seem to find nothing else to talk about. ‘Sex and the City’, for all it apparently achieved in terms of un-demonising female promiscuity, did nothing to reassure women that their primary focus needn’t be men. (It also seems to condone some pretty flighty behaviour.)

A little more often I would like to read a story, or see a film, where the protagonist was an interesting woman, doing exciting things, and where her lovelife wasn’t foregrounded as the premiere plot feature. I’m looking for a grown-up Pippi. Yes, there are a few. But there will have to be a lot more in order to combat the avalanche of low-grade cultural output – books, films, TV, adverts, music videos, fashion – which tells British women that their sexuality is their personality, and their identity is contingent on men.

To return to the starting point, to the question of why there aren’t more women in UK boardrooms: it is about inclination – and inspiration – as much as possibility. The door may be open, but women have to aspire to walk through it. And what will prompt them to ‘aspire’ is more complex than, for example, a more generous stance on paternity leave. The answer must, at least partly, be in presenting women with some more varied and inspiring options in the popular forms we daily consume.

Happy International Women’s Day.


Filed under Culture, feminism, Literature, Politics

The Prince of Denmark and Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron

This week I finally got to see Jerusalem. It was just as good as everyone says, possibly better. This is probably about the third or fourth time I have seen Mark Rylance on stage, I have already learned to expect great things: his Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron did not disappoint. From the moment he hobbled out of his caravan, upended himself over a water trough like a gymnast on the bar, and gulped down a mixture of raw egg, milk and vodka, I was hooked. I think the whole audience was.

But this particular performance immediately reminded me of another I was recently similarly impressed by: Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, currently at the Young Vic and, in fact, directed by the same person, Ian Rickson. In that case, the realisation that it was going to be a brilliant production happened more slowly, when, about ten minutes in, it dawned on me that, in spite of the archaic language, I for once entirely understood what was happening, and Hamlet’s predicament. Further, Sheen is the first actor, in the first production, that has actually made me feel the heart of the play, the heartbreak at the centre of it.

Beyond the fact that both of these actors are so good it is almost exhilarating to watch them for a couple of hours, there are some other odd similarities between these two tales, so far apart in time and context.

In both cases the protagonists are men driven by their own internal moral compass, and the tension, and narrative, comes from this being fundamentally at odds with their context. They are both characters that hover on the edge of accepted notions of sanity. Perhaps they themselves don’t have a clear view of their psychological state. Both plays indulge in references to the paranormal, without it ever being quite clear whether this is a fiction of the protagonist’s unbalanced brain, or true magic.

But insane or not, they create interest because their very nature questions the accepted wisdom around them. One of Jerusalem’s central points is to defend a kind of natural order and balance, that might at first glance look like chaos, as opposed to the true idiocy inherent in excessive bureaucracy. We easily identify with Rooster over the local council.

These are individuals alone in a hostile world, local princes whose land is invaded and sovereignty questioned. And both are tragically victorious in defeat. The only possible outcome of such a standoff is carnage – but it is a carnage they knowingly invite, on principle.

They are not easy parts, and the sense of the play depends on the ability of the central actor. This is surely why Hamlet is a classic and Jerusalem sure to be one. If Hamlet and Rooster can’t be made to seem warm, human, charismatic – funny – then the play makes no emotional sense. Hamlet is just a whiny, paranoid, cowardly, mummy’s boy; Rooster is just an offensive, idiotic drunk. Luckily Sheen and Rylance have no problem conveying the brilliance of the mind that is permanently on the edge; the nobility of the man desperately trying to remain true to himself; and the deep sense of humanity that drives both plays. In their hands, Hamlet and Rooster’s struggles are admirable rather than baffling.

I loved both these plays for reassuring me – and sometimes it feels easy to forget – that brilliant doesn’t have to mean obscure; high culture can be accessible, relevant, and funny. The Morris-dancing scene in Jerusalem was genuinely hilarious. Hamlet’s stroppy showdown with his mother reminded us of what he is really, when it comes down to it, upset about. And although emphatically not what they were originally written to do, there is an element in both of them of critiquing the ridiculousness of the global institutions of the 21st century. They do a good job in reminding us that the powers that be don’t have all the answers, and anyway some things cannot be explained, nor should they be.

We will never know whether Hamlet really was mad. It is ok not to decide whether Rooster’s bacchanalian drumbeat summoned the giants footsteps or the rumbling of JCBs. At a time when it is publicly unacceptable to be uncertain about anything (how often do we hear politicians say ‘I am very clear that…’?), such antiheroes offer a more captivating, and human, alternative.


Filed under Art, Culture