Posts Tagged ‘The People of Providence’

2017 foursomes

December 31, 2017

In which I celebrate another year of having successfully cheated death by looking back at my cultural highlights of the past twelve months.

Top 4 theatre
My two best shows of the year, towering above the rest, were Angels in America and Follies, both at the National Theatre, sublime and superlative achievements, thrillingly staged and acted. I’d like to list the entire casts of both, really, but the performances that have stayed most in my memory are those of Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Aidan McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Angels, and Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, and the central quartet from Follies, perhaps especially Imelda Staunton, desperately vulnerable as Sally. I saw excellent productions of Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at Stratford, but my Shakespeare highlight of the year was Twelfth Night, again at the National, with Tamsin Greig imperious as Malvolia, Tim McMullan swaggering all over the place as Belch, Daniel Rigby as good a communicator of Aguecheek’s damagedness as I’ve seen (the man bun clearly a cry for help), and Tamara Lawrance a touching Viola. (Also, anything with Oliver Chris in it ticks my box.) And She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which I saw in January as a post-Christmas treat, a twinkly production of the most chocolate-boxy of musicals. I’d gone expressly to see Mark Umbers as Georg, but in the event his understudy Peter Dukes proved excellent. The decision to use British accents worked a treat, with ‘A Trip to the Library’ in Katherine Kingsley’s broad Cockney the high point.

Top 4 student theatre
It’s been a very good year at the ADC in Cambridge, starting with my first García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba, done by an extraordinarily strong cast of future stars (the performances of Xanthe Burdett, Daisy Jones and Emma Corrin among the standouts) in Jo Clifford’s translation. Alecky Blythe’s London Road received probably the finest student production I’ve seen of anything ever, an exacting musical done brilliant justice by a cast and band who clearly knew it inside out (Footlight Orlando Gibbs, playing one of the press photographers, even managed some improvised business when the lens fell off his camera). Its composer Adam Cork saw the production, and I can only imagine he was thrilled. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce is a bit dated now, but still very amusing, and was fortunate to have some of the funniest people in Cambridge in its cast, most notably Colin Rothwell, having a ball as the perpetually whinging Nick, and John Tothill, who must surely be recognised before too long as one of the great character comedians of his generation. And recently, Gypsy, a show I begin to see the point of. Ashleigh Weir (Rose) is one to watch, but everyone in Cambridge knows that by now.

Top 4 Edinburgh
Although I didn’t have the energy to blog about it here at the time, I had a good few days at the Fringe this August, the highlights being as follows: Colin Hoult as Anna Mann (‘Oh, fuck off!’) in How We Stop the Fascists, fabulously warm and witty, the funniest part for me being the point at which Mann asked the audience what we thought a fascist looked like, then slyly produced a mirror for us to look at and pass around, concluding with ‘Anyway, you get the point – fascists look like mirrors!’ (Maybe you had to be there.) Joseph Morpurgo’s Hammerhead, the discussion following his nine-hour one-man performance of Frankenstein, was a tour de force. Then there was Ivo Graham’s fun and exciting Educated Guess, a stand-up show with a difference, the difference being a quiz in which Graham’s encyclopaedic knowledge of MPs and their constituencies was put to the test. The night I saw it he fell down tragically on Jeremy Wright (Con, Kenilworth and Southam), but the video at the end helped to soothe the pain. And lastly but mostly, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the worthiest winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award, though as she says it’s not really comedy, it’s very dark and very important. She made me feel worthless, and somehow in a good way.

Top 4 live music
I’m surprised at how few concerts I’ve attended in 2017. Theatre seems to be usurping music in that respect. But it was special to see Joshua Bell and Dénes Várjon in Edinburgh playing, among other things, the Brahms G major violin sonata, which almost moved me to tears, an effect music almost never has on me. Brahms has not shifted from his place at the top of my personal pantheon, and seeing the Endellion Quartet and Barry Douglas play the G minor piano quartet in October was exciting, especially that furious Hungarian finale. I saw Mitsuko Uchida twice, playing two different Schubert programmes, the better of which was the one at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where the ‘Con moto’ movement of the D.850 sonata was particularly divine. And it was great to see Max Raabe and Christoph Israel at the Wigmore Hall, where Raabe sang a lot of unfamiliar songs by the likes of Walter Jurmann. Especially lovely was Jurmann’s ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, complete with whistling duet.

Top 4 albums
Of this year’s releases, up with which I have very much not kept, Nelson Freire’s Brahms recital has been on repeat – I hadn’t known the third piano sonata, but it’s beautiful; the shorter pieces are exquisite, and exquisitely performed. My great discovery early in the year was the fourth symphony of Franz Schmidt, in the recording by the London Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst, a masterpiece whose organicism excites and entrances. I’m pacing myself, but want to get to know the other three (and got the Bychkov recording of the second for Christmas). The NT production sent me back to the 2011 Broadway recording of Follies, admirably exhaustive and addictive. And lastly, loads more Prefab Sprout. Why has it taken until my thirties for me to become properly obsessed with this band I have known from my teens? Maybe they’re too good for the young. I’ve listened to their 1985 album Steve McQueen constantly, as literate and elusive and romantic a collection of songs as anyone could wish to hear.

Top 4 old films
Don’t judge me, but I’d never seen Ninotchka before. Actually I’m not sure I’d ever seen a Greta Garbo film before. But I love Ernst Lubitsch, and it has his usual gemütlich charm and cosiness in spades, while at the same time, like his To Be or Not to Be, commenting smartly on the politics of its time. Garbo is fabulous, especially in her stone-faced incarnation, and Melvyn Douglas is a pleasing foil, but Felix Bressart steals every scene as usual. Is there any film actor pre-1950 I love more? Sidney Lumet’s bleak masterpiece Fail-Safe, a sort of Dr. Strangelove without jokes, left me deeply discomfited, a chilling film to watch at a time when the threat of nuclear war seems greater than ever before during my life. And two Japanese films: Juzo Itami’s ‘ramen western’ Tampopo, playful, erotic and hilarious from start to finish; and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, a straightforward drama of human relationships made with such delicacy and acuity that it’s exhilarating to watch. Kore-eda has an amazing hit rate in recent years, and this film is up there with I Wish and Still Walking. It’s been a very good year. Films that narrowly failed to make the cut: Ikiru, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Nobody Knows (more Kore-eda), Girlhood, Love is Strange, Holy Motors, In the House.

Top 4 new films
It’s been a great year at the cinema too. Most of all, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name, one of those films I felt might have been made just for me. Given the novel is a favourite book of mine, the film had a lot to live up to, but it succeeded in almost every particular, a sensual, slowly intoxicating adaptation, sensitively scored, gorgeously performed, delicately devastating. Earlier in the year, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight had a similar effect on me, brutal and tender, poetic and pulsating. (I know, I’m overdosing on adjectives again.) Toni Erdmann was an unexpected delight, a film about an eccentric man’s dysfunctional relationship with his daughter. Sandra Hüller is tremendous as the daughter Ines, but my favourite moments were those where I suddenly became aware of Peter Simonischek’s Toni in the background, half Clouseau hunchback, half Les Patterson, simply being funny. It has its melancholic side too, but there’s a lot to be said for fun and funniness. And of course, Paddington 2, supremely entertaining. Not only are Paddington and the Browns lovable (hardly a given, considering how few film families one would wish to spend time with), the supporting cast is stunning. Tom Conti and his various physical indignities, randy Simon Farnaby, forgetful Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Hugh Grant giving the performance of his career (and even starring in a ‘Prisoners-of-Love’-style rendition of a number from Follies that was the cherry on the cake). Irresistible. Honourable mentions for The Big Sick, The Florida Project, and My Life as a Courgette.

Top 4 books
In a pretty good reading year there are a handful of books that stand out above the rest, among them Andrew Hankinson’s gripping You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Maggie Nelson’s audacious The Argonauts, Peter De Vries’s heartbreaking The Blood of the Lamb, and Muriel Spark’s wicked Symposium. But if I had to pick four, I’d choose three of my Grand Tour reads – Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom, the perfect book to read this Christmas (though you may have left it a little late); Margarita Karapanou’s darkly beautiful Kassandra and the Wolf; and of course Tony Parker’s housing estate compendium The People of Providence – and for a fourth, probably Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s mesmeric tapestry of early 20th-century America. I also loved his The Book of Daniel.

More of this stuff in a year, if we all make it.

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Grand Tour #27 – United Kingdom. The People of Providence / Tony Parker

December 2, 2017

About half of the books I read must be by British authors, so it was never going to be a struggle to find a book for the UK, but I did want to find something in the spirit of this project, a book with Britishness as its subject somehow. After much deliberation, it came to me suddenly: Tony Parker’s 1983 book The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants, which I bought in 2011 after hearing a radio documentary about the author. Tony Parker (1923-1996) was one of the great oral historians of the last century, and his work focused above all on the voices of marginalised people. His book Life After Life, a collection of interviews with convicted murderers, made a great impact on me a few years ago, and The People of Providence promised much.

Parker spent a good chunk of the early 1980s interviewing various residents of and visitors to the estate he calls Providence (in fact the Brandon Estate in Southwark, built in 1958 and by the 1980s beginning to be somewhat dilapidated), meeting each interviewee several times. This book consists of 49 of these interviews condensed into monologues, each lasting about six pages in total, the interviewees’ identities tactfully disguised. At the start a passer-by, asked to sum up Providence in a single word, offers the word ‘mixed’. That is indisputably the case: it’s mixed in terms of accommodation (20-storey tower blocks, low-rise flats, prefabs, squats), and in terms of its residents, who are racially diverse, come from all sorts of backgrounds (though predominantly middle- and working-class), and range in age from babies to pensioners. The People of Providence, then, is a study of a place that itself can be viewed as a microcosm of Britain at a particular time.

As a chronicle of social attitudes, it’s fascinating. At the forefront, perhaps unsurprisingly, is race, and it’s interesting that racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be divided broadly along age or class lines. You might expect opposing attitudes from the likes of 12-year-old Ian (‘There are five black boys in our class: they’re just the same as the rest of us, nobody cares if they’re coloured or not, it’s no different from anyone else.’) and 61-year-old Frank (‘Old Enoch was right, you know, when he said we should send them all back home … The thing is that their ways aren’t our ways: they never will be, we’re two completely different sorts of people.’), but more striking are those who buck the trend, such as Trevor, the young father of a baby boy:

‘If he ever came home with a coloured girl and said she was his girlfriend, I wouldn’t let him in the house … I’m not racially prejudiced, but to me it’s downright unnatural for races to mix themselves up, the whole idea’s unnatural. Know what I mean? [Later] In the last couple of weeks when you’ve come round and we’ve been talking, I expect I might have given you the impression I was a bit anti-black. But I don’t hold with the National Front … I don’t mind blacks living here so long as they behave themselves.’

Or ‘senior unretired citizen’ Percy, whose greatest pleasure is going to the cricket at Lord’s with his great-grandson, and is himself a staunch defender of immigrants:

‘There’s still hardly more than a handful of black people in top jobs anywhere in the country: not only them but their children have been exploited and taken advantage of. And this is after twenty-five to thirty years of them being here. I think it’s disgraceful what’s been done to them, I lose my temper.’

The non-white residents tend not to make a fuss about racism. One, Camilla, says she has hardly ever suffered racist abuse, though she thinks it’s a shame that Prince Charles hasn’t taken the opportunity of marrying a black woman rather than Princess Diana: after all, half of his future subjects will be black, and it would have sent out a very positive message that we are all the same. (I hope she’s still alive today.) Her modest dream is that her husband will take her to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, perhaps as a Christmas present.

Most of the people of Providence don’t give too much thought to the Royal Family. One teacher calls them parasites and is disappointed that the children in her class don’t feel as strongly as she does; Joan, by contrast, is a devout monarchist:

‘I think the Queen is a really lovely person; I don’t care how much money she’s got, she earns every penny of it. But it never changes her, deep down she’ll always be an ordinary everyday person with a house to run and a family to bring up. You can tell that from her face, when you see her among people; she’s right close to them, and she really cares for her people and what happens to them. I’m sure in elections and things she votes Labour like all the rest of us ordinary people do.’

Other social attitudes: the North-South divide is occasionally mentioned, particularly by Northerners who have moved South and find Londoners unfriendly. The only interviewee who talks about homosexuality is gay man Paul, whose attitude is depressingly typical of the time, progressive up to a point but damning of flamboyant gays and cross-dressers, the ‘freaks’ who by their refusal to assimilate stop straight-acting people like him from being accepted. He’s a relic, but not as much as reactionary Stanley, who talks unironically of ‘dear old England’ and reels off a list of his accomplishments (JP, local councillor, British Rail, ‘well known and respected in the Conservative party in this area’, Masonic Lodge), concluding, ‘There’s surely nothing else that a man could want.’ He was the only person in the book for whom I couldn’t muster up any empathy.

Most of the interviewees confront the question sooner or later of whether they are happy living in Providence, indeed, whether they are happy generally. Many feel settled there and praise the GLC for having given them a home, while some view Providence as a stepping stone to somewhere else, and a few are frankly desperate. One young mother living on the sixteenth floor says she sometimes consoles herself with the thought that if she ever wants to end it all she can simply go out on the balcony and jump off: ‘When I was a kid I used to read in books hell was down under the earth somewhere; but it’s not, it’s up here in the sky.’ The final interview is incomplete, for reasons I won’t go into here, and is one of the most guttingly sad things I’ve ever read. I had to read it twice, and the second time it read completely differently from the first.

In a book this rich it’s hard to choose a favourite character: 12-year-old Ian, perhaps, who’s a bit of a hellraiser, dropping milk bottles and light bulbs off the top of the high-rise flats, but also does odd jobs for the elderly; or kindly teenager Anne Knowles (‘I hope I’ve been a bit of help’); or benevolent sponger Mr Cross, who goes around the houses of old people to keep them company and eat their food; or Arthur Davidson, the community copper of everyone’s dreams; or Mrs Bedford, who wants to be buried with a box of her beloved peppermint creams in case she wakes up and feels lonely. But the one story that touched me most was that of 78-year-old Mr Elliott: ‘Did you say this is all confidential with no way anyone could tell who I was? All right then, I’ll tell you: I vote Conservative. No one else in the world knows that.’ As the interview progresses, it turns out he has a secret deeper even than that:

‘If I could go back and start again and have an education, with my education that I had I’d like to have been a ballet dancer. I never told anyone about it when I was a boy because it’s not the sort of thing you could tell anyone in those days … I’ve never seen a ballet in a theatre, but whenever there’s music from the ballet on the radio I make sure I listen to it. The one I like best is called Sylvia Deeds or some name like that. The music for that one is very beautiful. I don’t know who wrote it or who the story is by – I believe Sylvia Deeds was a lady, perhaps even a princess. She must have been very beautiful for someone to write beautiful music like that about her. When I think about it I’ve got an idea that she was Polish, a Polish lady or something, but I can’t be sure.’

I take ‘Sylvia Deeds’ to be Les Sylphides, though at a push it could be Sylvia by Delibes. Without, I hope, being patronising, I find the innocence of Mr Elliott’s fantasy enormously poignant. He says he’s asked in record shops about getting the music on tape, but no one has been able to help him. (As it is, he has the largest collection of Mario Lanza cassettes in existence.) I wonder if Tony Parker might have been able to track it down for him, given more time. Later he talks of his unsuccessful marriage, many decades earlier. He can’t now remember his wife’s name, but it may have been Cora or Connie. A distillation of the small but precious life of an ordinary person – perhaps one of those who, in George Eliot’s words, rest in unvisited tombs.

It feels a great privilege to be allowed into these people’s lives and homes, and prompts contemplation of the tremendous diversity of humanity, of how little we may know about the lives of those who surround us. A book as engrossing could have been written about any block of flats in the world, only it needed a Tony Parker to do it, someone with the knack of getting people to open up. I don’t imagine a filmed documentary would have been as effective, because the interviewees would have felt inhibited by the camera. As it is, their voices are disarmingly direct. One young married couple thanks Parker at their final appointment, telling him that they will miss him, that talking out loud about things has helped them to get to know one another better, and that it’s something they may carry on doing after he’s gone, making a weekly appointment to talk to each other. I don’t make a habit of forcing books on people, but I do urge you to consider this one.