Monthly Archives: June 2013

The changed shape of the Glastonbury Festival

 

This is the weekend of the Glastonbury Festival, an event which, despite its counter-cultural origins, has now become just as much part of UK mainstream culture as Wimbledon or the Proms or the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Although the history of the festival is documented on its website, wider media coverage tends to be selective. Its hippy origins are always acknowledged, but usually overlooked is its 1980s period of overt support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the exact time, by coincidence, when it grew musically and commercially.

In 1992, according to the festival’s website, “Michael Eavis (the Festival founder) felt that with the ending of the Cold War people’s concerns had shifted from the possibility of nuclear war to the concerns about the environment”, and so the highly worthwhile but less controversial Water Aid, Greenpeace and Oxfam became the charities which benefitted from its donations and badged its main stages. That earlier period when it was known as the Glastonbury CND Festival has been somewhat air-brushed from the narrative of its expansion into a global media brand.  Particularly sad, since you could argue that it was its political leanings which drove its pioneering of multiple performance stages and line-ups of varied musical genres.

We can perhaps date the era of conspicuous commercialisation from the mid 1990s when the BBC took over the televising of the event from Channel 4. The widely reported attendance by several (perhaps it was several dozen!) members of the New Labour government in 1997 or 1998 would have been seen as a significant blessing by the new establishment. On one of those years, when the site was heavily waterlogged, I remember Billy Bragg on stage making a wry comment that at least mobile phones weren’t able to work : an era when they were seen as the devilish possessions of media- and image-conscious adults rather than of school pupils!  The arrival of online ticket purchasing, by which all the tickets could be sold within a few hours or days before anyone knew who was actually performing,  showed it had moved from being an established pop/rock music festival to being “an event”.

Whereas the catholic mix of musical styles was at one time imaginative,  it has latterly become rather predictable and even contrived.  The Sunday especially has been headlined by artists who are not particularly associated with muddy fields or political protest.  Thus Rod Stewart, the Who, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce Knowles  –  although comparable crowd-pleasers like Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Paul McCartney led on other days.  Late Sunday afternoon or early evening was dubbed the “legends” slot by someone  –  certainly Tony Bennett played at that time and the equally unlikely Kenny Rogers looks due to do so then this year. Publicity is always given to the most “unexpected” Glastonbury guests : in the past, Tom Jones or Rolf Harris or the English National Opera, this year Bruce Forsyth.

It was certainly an imaginative move, announced in January, for this year’s festival  to have an act from Mali to open the Pyramid Stage programme each day in an act of solidarity with the strife-torn country.  However, in general, world music has become less prominent over the years, with the stage where it was usually showcased renamed rather anonymously as the West Holts stage, and often featuring mainstream names. Although it is fair to say that the high water mark of world music’s popularity has passed, you might think that a festival as vast (and as boastfully so) as Glastonbury might make more of an effort.

Many of the acts on the main stages are also performing at other big festivals like Reading/Leeds and T in the Park, so the BBC’s multi-channel coverage is likely to offer a rather familiar musical menu of rock, pop, R&B and keyboard-led dance. Although the wacky richness of the smaller performance areas is always acknowledged by the media, it is rarely shown in any detail.

“Glastonbury differs from other major rock festivals in that it has an underlying ethos : to make the world a better place,” insists a website piece on the Leftfield stage, but I suspect that, during the weekend, despite the perfect opportunity, little attention will be given to the work and the ideas of the charities whose names emblazon the main stages.

 

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The Lorca landscape

 

The Spanish Civil War still retains a grip on the popular imagination, despite its political complexities,  because of the artists associated with it. Orwell, Hemingway, Auden, Picasso and, a rather different  figure, Lorca.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s plays are romantic and sensual, with female characters who are attempting to break out from restrictions  imposed by family and tradition.  Yerma yearns for a child and kills the husband who refuses to co-operate with her desire. In The House of Bernarda Alba the youngest daughter Adela seeks her own destiny rather than that imposed by parental instruction and social custom. In Blood Wedding the Bride is drawn to her previous lover Leonardo, whose family has caused violence in the community before.  In Lorca’s plays the Catholic Church and the Spanish countryside are often equally powerful forces.

At first glance, the work of contemporary  Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar  seems dissimilar : much gaudier and broader. But I feel his Volver is reminiscent of Lorca : the women tending the cemeteries in the wind-swept village is a little like the scene in Yerma where Dolores and Yerma are praying in a cemetery to speed the latter’s pregnancy.  It is often said that homosexual male artists show a particular sensitivity in observing and analysing the female experience : perhaps this holds true with Lorca and Almodovar.

For full effect, productions of Lorca probably need to be kept in their historical and geographical contexts, and with a certain sense of religious ritual, such as the several Spanish productions on You Tube of The House of Bernarda Alba.

There is a great collection of Lorca plays and poetry here, and some photographs of the Andalusia where Lorca lived here :

 

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Juxtaposed Christian and Moslem features are typical of Cordoba’s Mezquita : the building which began as a mosque and has since lived an 800 year life as a Catholic cathedral with scarcely any change in its physical appearance.

 

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In Ronda, an 18th century bridge, the Puente Nuevo, joins the two halves of the town across a deep gorge.

 

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Some of the landscape viewed from Ronda’s Puente Nuevo.

 

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Part of the Alhambra complex in Granada, with the Moslem district of Albaicin in the background.

 

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An example of Moorish design inside the Alhambra.

 

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“(The Albaicin)… displays an infinite external harmony. Sweet is the dance of the houses round the mount,” wrote Lorca.

 

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A Moorish exterior in the Alhambra.

 

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In the distance, the head-like shape of the rock of La Peña de los Enamorados, as seen from the entrance to the Menga dolmen (a prehistoric burial chamber) in Antequera.

 

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An ambiguous female figure perhaps appropriate for Lorca’s home region. La Tarasca – part woman, part dragon – is a traditional feature of the Corpus Christi procession.

 

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The 16th century Royal Collegiate Church of Santa Maria la Major in Antequera, with the statue of the writer Pedro de Espinosa.

 

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Outside Antequera, a shrine to St Veronica, who, according to Christian tradition, wiped the face of Jesus as he carried the cross to his crucifixion.

 

 

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As Bloomsday approaches

 

“My literary tastes… have changed hardly at all in the last 45 years,” wrote Anthony Burgess sometime in the 1980s. “I was both disqualified and castigated when, in a school essay competition, I declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses was my favourite book…Now, making the identical declaration, I will be sneered at for the banality of my choice. Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century”.

As a great fan of Burgess’ journalism in The Observer during that period, I read him eulogise Ulysses there, and heard him do so at a personal appearance in Glasgow around the same time. Two Scottish novels which have been generally felt to show Joycean influences,  Alan Sharp’s A Green Tree in Gedde and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, also nudged me further up towards the source.  An imminent first visit to Dublin in 1991 accelerated my first and so far only complete reading of the novel.

A great accompaniment was Frank Delaney’s  James Joyce’s Odyssey , a valuable guide both through Joyce’s writing and the novel’s Dublin locations.  When Delaney published his book, he was keen to help those readers, he said, who had started the book but reproached themselves for not finishing it. It is interesting to muse about  how many (or how few) readers today might reproach themselves for such a failing. A 1997 poll of the best novels of the 20th century, allegedly involving 25,000 members of the public, placed Ulysses only fourth, while a 2009 selection of an “essential fiction library” lowered it to 24.

The modernist structure of Joyce’s novel certainly makes it challenging. The conflation of a character’s thoughts with what he sees or experiences, the avoidance of inverted commas to make conversation harder to discern, the sections which experiment with unusual narrative techniques like the question and answer chapter or the playscript chapter or the 50-page unpunctuated monologue : all these require concentration from the reader to follow the story and the characters. Then there’s the fact that the reader knows that chapters of the novel, although unnamed,  correspond to the adventures of the original Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, such as the journey to the Underworld or the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus or the encounter with the sweet-singing Sirens, so that is another layer of cultural reference to keep aware of.  Then there’s also the fact, reminds Delaney, that each chapter relates to a part of the body, such as the eyes, the ears, the digestive system…  

It may be that to read or hear sections of Ulysses or to see adaptations is to distract you from tackling the whole thing. However,  I certainly enjoyed reading sections of the book alongside listens to BBC Radio 4’s five-hour adaptation for Bloomsday 2012. A recent viewing of the 1967 Joseph Strick film was more rewarding than I remembered from before : there are some good performances (Milo O’Shea, Barbara Jefford, T.P.McKenna and Joe Lynch as Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan respectively) and the 1960s black and white cinematography helps to create an distancing effect comparable to the modernist style and the Edwardian setting.

 

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The statue of James Joyce in Dublin city centre.

 

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“He crossed Westmoreland street …Hot mockturtle vapour and steam of newbaked jampuffs roly-poly poured out of Harrisons. The heavy noonreek tickled the top of Mr Bloom’s gullet”. One of the plaques on the Joyce walking trail in Dublin. When this photo was taken in 1991, there was still a restaurant called Harrisons, serving a Joyce-friendly menu.

 

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“A skiff, a crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming, rode lightly down the Liffey, under Loopline bridge, shooting the rapids where water chafed around the bridgepiers, sailing eastwards past hulls and anchorchains, between the Customhouse old dock and George’s quay”. The 18th century Custom House was already changing its original use at the time Joyce was writing.

 

Nowadays the indefatigable Mr Delaney has extended his help further into Ulysses podcasts, and there is always interesting supporting material on the web-site of the James Joyce Centre.

Does all this assistance stimulate or deflate a reader’s stamina and dedication for a demanding 700 page novel? Delaney reminds us that Joyce himself gleefully said that he had put in enough puzzles to keep the professors busy for centuries.  One solution he himself proposes is to treat the novel as a series of paintings.  Or perhaps as a reference book, something to be dipped into occasionally, rather than worked through from cover to cover?

 

References :

Burgess, Anthony  (1987)  Homage to Qwert Yuiop : Selected Journalism 1978-1985    London : Abacus

Delaney, Frank, (1983)  James Joyce’s Odyssey : A Guide to the Dublin of “Ulysses”   London : Granada

 

 

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