In 2013, I published a young adult novel about homophobic bullying in schools. Breaking Point told the story not just from the point of the victim, but also of the bullies and a teacher. On the initial free download period for the Kindle, it was downloaded more than 7,000 times and user reviews were largely positive.
A few years later, I started work on a sequel which, for various reasons, kept getting put to one side. I finally finished the first draft in the middle of last year, and Breaking Down has now been released in Kindle and paperback editions alongside a revised version of Breaking Point. The revised Breaking Point has a somewhat expanded text, but the narrative is largely the same, although it deviated slightly in the last couple of chapters.
In Breaking Point, James Marsh is sixteen years old and in his final year of high school. He has been suffering from bullying for months at the hands of Jason Mitchell and his friends but, as they return to school after the Easter break, Jason takes his tormenting to a whole new level. As James struggles to cope, a teacher at the school finds his hands tied when he attempts to help him, Jason spirals out of control, and a former friend of James tries to make amends.
In Breaking Down, the sequel, James is about to leave home to go to university, knowing that it might signal the end of his relationship with Paul. Jason has been trying to make amends for what he did at school, but his past is coming back to haunt him. And teacher Andrew Green is struggling with his mental health due to the stress of the events of two years earlier, with his boyfriend at a loss on how to help him. They all learn to realise that the effects of school bullying will be with them for life – whether victim, bully, or teacher.
NB. The Royal College of Music are presenting this Offenbach opera with alternating casts. This review refers to the performance of Friday March 15, 2019.
Sometimes we wait for so long for something to happen that, when it does, we approach it with trepidation. I fell in love with Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe about thirty or so years ago when I was about fourteen. I borrowed the Opera Rara recording from my local library and fell in love with it. I would like to put into words why this happened, but sometimes it it simply is not possible. Things happen. The recording (the only recording, as it happens) was out of print at the time, and this was long before being able to track such things down with eBay, and so I eventually borrowed the set so many times from the library that they told me to keep it. The next week, the library burned down. Life can be strange.
Sadly, Robinson Crusoe is performed rarely, but that meant that travelling to see the Royal College of Music production in Offenbach’s 200th birthday year was a must, despite the problems that I have with travelling these days. The biggest question was whether my beloved Crusoe would be what I hoped for in a fully-staged live performance. I knew in advance that Don White’s superb English version was being used, which was a good sign. I needn’t have worried.
Crusoe sits in a rather unique place within Offenbach’s works. Most of Offenbach’s operettas are a series of short numbers of two or three minutes linked by often rather extended sequences of dialogue (which can be very tiresome on recordings). At the other end of the scale are the “grand” operas The Tales of Hoffmann and Die Rheinnixen. Crusoe sits somewhere in between – the couplets, can-cans and waltzes of the operettas are all present and correct (along with farcical comedy at times), but there are other moments that are deadly serious, as well as lengthy arias and love duets. Straddling this slightly uncomfortable neither-one-thing-or-another position can no doubt be difficult, but the RCM handled it with ease – and the young voices are a huge benefit in this regard.
The opening act takes place in the sitting room of the Crusoe’s home, with Robinson planning to run away to sea. The current production had the rather novel idea of having the sitting room as a room-sized box in the centre of the stage. There were pros and cons with this – it conveys to the audience the way that Robinson feels confined at home, but the confined space does feel a little like an over-used gimmick (clever though it is) by the end of the first act. From a musical point, the audience is put at ease with a fine rendition of the overture (which never seems to crop up on Offenbach Overture CDs), before the conservative Crusoe family is revealed as Sir William reads from the Bible.
I assumed at the beginning of the evening as the vocals began that I would be writing that Timothy Edlin’s performance as Sir William would be one of the highlights of the evening, but it actually set the standard for the rest of the evening with fine performances from all, and everyone fitted the roles extremely well. This first musical section soon tells us that Crusoe is not a light and fluffy operetta – around twenty minutes of singing take place before there is any spoken dialogue. Holly-Marie Bingham was superb as the port-swigging Lady Crusoe, and Judith Lozano sings Edwige’s aria “I’m Not In Love” really quite beautifully (again, another part of the opera that should be well-known, a lovely piece of music). Katy Thomson is great fun as Suzanne the maid who happily tells us of the revenge she has taken in the past to men who have left her (with some surreal burlesque thrown in!), and Guy Elliott (or Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m not sure which) has great fun with his comic song that lightens the mood towards the end of the act.
Robinson Crusoe was cut heavily around the time it was first performed in 1867, but most of the lost music was restored during the 1970s for the Opera Rara recordings and most subsequent performances. Unless I was mistaken, there were a couple of cuts made to the restored score in the first act – the first being the second verse of the rather tedious “Togetherness” song (not a great loss, in all honesty), but the second was (unless I was mistaken) a small part of the love duet between Robinson and Edwige, which made the end of the first section end rather abruptly – and, in all honesty, if we’re going to sit there for well over three hours, cutting two minutes of music ain’t going to make much difference!
The second act is in two scenes, the first being totally taken up by Glen Cunningham’s Robinson and Lauren Joyanne Morris’s take on Man Friday. Cunningham really comes into his own here – alone on the stage for the first six minutes or so, delivering the opening aria of the act, and changing character from the rather naive young man of the opening act to an almost father-like figure towards Friday, which is all handled extremely well. Robinson’s costume for the island scenes is a little…unusual – rather like a pair of pyjamas that have grown fur, or if you are of a certain age, he does rather start to resemble Bungle from Rainbow with all that facial hair and the fur suit, and I hope for Mr Cunningham’s sake his beard doesn’t take on a life of its own again during the next performance: no performer likes a flapping moustache (been there, done that!).
Rather oddly, seemingly in a nod to political correctness or, as the programme note suggests, “cultural appropriation,” the word “Master” is removed entirely from the opera when Friday is talking to Robinson and is replaced by “Crusoe.” While this may have been done with the best intentions, the opera is set in the 1800s when Friday would have probably called Robinson “Master” – and if they were in a friend relationship instead, surely she would call him by his first name and not his surname (but presumably “Robinson” has too many syllables to fit the music!). Bearing this sensitivity to the word “master” in mind, it then seems doubly odd that Friday, a part generally played by a non-white singer is here played by a caucasian – and played very well, I might add – but given the recent furore over whitewashing (remember West Side Story at the Proms last year), I would think this was more of a sensitive issue than the word “master!” It would be interesting to find out the thinking behind these various decisions – and, of course, 99% of the audience would not be aware of the change to the wording in the libretto.
The first scene of the second act contains some really lovely music, most notably the lengthy duet between Robinson and Friday, but dramatically the scene doesn’t really go anywhere – something that is less noticeable on a recording. Conversely, much happens in the second scene of Act II, and it is probably the highlight of the whole opera (both on CD and on stage). Here we get a chorus of waltzing and can-canning (not at the same time) cannibals, amongst other things. Rhys James Batt is extremely good as Jim Cocks, the Bristolian who ran away to sea ten years earlier but is now the cannibals’ chef! A gifted comedian with great stage presence, he manages to perform both uproariously funny elements of his part with the more serious ones. Toby and Suzanne’s lengthy duet is great fun (and the dancing cannibals is a lovely and unexpected touch), and Juliet Lozano takes on and conquers with panache the stunning waltz song which is the only relatively well-known number from the entire opera (thanks to a recording by Joan Sutherland). Also of note here is the beautiful ensemble number that takes place just prior to the waltz, which starts with just one person singing (Friday) and then Offenbach adds layer upon layer upon layer, showing just how great a composer he could be when he really set his mind to it.
Sadly, he didn’t set his mind to it very much in Act three. On the Opera Rara recording, it is obvious that, musically, it has little of the ambition or, indeed, charm of the first two acts. One could almost picture Offenbach running behind schedule and producing a few numbers overnight to get the score finished (shades of Arthur Sullivan) – and who would put that past him? After what has come before, it is a very disappointing thirty-five minutes or so from the point of view of the score. The arias for Friday and Edwige are forgettable (although well-performed in the new production), and the “bliss” duet is a mix of bland music with a notably inane lyric: “Yes, this must be what bliss is, bliss is what this is.” Surely Don White could have done better than that?!
A number from the restored score gets the chop here – Suzanne’s (not very musically exciting) song about Man Friday causes all kinds of problems for a 2019 audience: “Coloured skin’s not a sin/God made you, Friday too/And in the end that’s all that counts.” Yikes – and that’s one of the more palatable sections of the lyrics of the number! It’s such a memorable number on the CD that I had forgotten it even existed until I just went to check something else (act three doesn’t get played much!). Clearly, the lyrics are outdated and it’s easy to see why this would be cringeworthy/offensive performed today – but it does reiterate that Friday was written as a non-caucasian character!
But there is good news regarding Offenbach’s rather woeful third act. Somehow, the RCM managed to make far more out of it than I ever thought would be possible. Through a mix of hamming it up and even audience participation (the audience had had two intervals by this point and may well have been slightly imbibed, which helped with the latter element), the cast had everyone on side within minutes – helped along by the still-all-too-relevant quartet where Man Friday watches on as the others tell him “there’s no place like England/As you’ll soon begin/to learn when you get there/if they let you in!” Indeed!
In short, for cast, crew, orchestra (just wait for their wonderful rendition of the Entracte to Act II – again, why isn’t it better known), and Offenbach himself, Robinson Crusoe is a triumph. From the glorious duets and arias through to the pantomime of the third act, it was certainly worth the wait of thirty years to finally see a production and I congratulate all involved. It’s all too easy with a piece such as this to not take the serious bits seriously, but that minefield is well-judged.
One really has to wonder why this piece, and Offenbach in general, is so ignored in the UK. Are we really such a bunch of dull serious opera goers that we can’t have a bloody good time while we’re there more than once in a blue moon? We pay enough to go! There really is so much good music within Crusoe (and many other Offenbach works) and it is a shame that there is only the one recording, and it would be nice to hear one in the original French. A DVD/blu-ray release of a performance would be welcome also (I’d certainly pay good money for a copy of this one) – surely we have more than enough Hoffmann’s to keep us happy for a few years? On the plus side, there has been signs that opera companies are becoming more willing to try out forgotten scores on audiences during the last few years. English Touring Opera are presenting Rossini’s Elisabeth I this year, and gave us Donizetti’s The Wild Man of the West Indies a couple of years back. Even the National G&S Company toured with The Sorcerer last year.
My love of Crusoe remains as strong as it always has been. I may be far more cynical now than when I first heard it, but there are so many wonderful moments in the score that it never fails to put a smile on my face – and Suzanne’s line “what’s the use of dreaming dreams when you know they will never, never come true” is so beautiful and comes at us out of nowhere that those bars alone can still bring me to tears.
I watched Call Me By Your Name tonight (a few months after most other people!). It looks very pretty, and certainly works as a very nice advertisement for Northern Italy, but I found it surprisingly disappointing and I didn’t manage to get emotionally involved in the story or empathising with the characters. This wasn’t helped by what seemed like a considerable amount of padding, and I wonder if it might have been better had it been twenty minutes shorter (it runs at two and a quarter hours).
The story about a seventeen year old (ish) teenager who begins a relationship with a research assistant who has come to live with his family for the summer to work with his father in Northern Italy is very slight and seems to go to all the various plot points that you might expect. I should also add that I know a number of research assistants and none of them are facing the prospect of eight weeks of sunning themselves in Italy! Perhaps they should complain.
Arnie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet do very well in their roles, with the latter no doubt destined for great things – and the fact that he makes you start to like a character who transcribes Schoenberg for fun gives an indication of his screen presence. But it is only in the last section of the film that he becomes that likeable, as it is that point he becomes vulnerable. Apparently, there will be a sequel, and may be even a long-running series about these characters, but I’m not going to get too excited.
The film gained some considerable attention, mostly because the two romantic leads were both male. It’s a big step forward for Hollywood in that they produced a whopping two major films with male gay lead characters this year (how did they cope?!), but a film that is a milestone for Hollywood is not anything special for anyone who watches independent or foreign-language films on a regular basis. In truth, France, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia in particular have been making films with gay lead characters literally for decades, better than this, and without trumpeting their “daring” every time such a film is released. It’s just par for the course. I re-watched Les Roseau Sauvages (Andre Techine, 1994) earlier this week and it has considerably more depth and emotional involvement than Call Me By Your Name.
Love Simon, the other Hollywood film of male-male love release this year is another thing altogether and truly is a first in its use of the high school movie format that we have all seen over the last few decades for a gay romance – and it is a more entertaining, and thoroughly likeable, film by far. Hopefully, Love Simon will lead to such things being “normal” in major films. It is, apparently, the 14th highest grossing teen romance since 1980, which demonstrates that teenage audiences have no problem with the subject matter – not that anyone is likely to be shocked by that other than film executives, it seems. But out of Call Me By Your Name and Love Simon, it will be the latter that I will return to. It’s funny, charming and thoroughly engaging whether you’re the intended teen audience or not, and I found little of that in the more self-important watched tonight.
On a final note, the two films contain scenes that are very reminiscent of each other towards the end of their running times. The scene where Simon’s mother talks to him about his sexuality after he has come out has been rightfully applauded, but we get a similar scene between Elio and his father in Call Me By Your Name which is just as well done, if not better. In fact, it is probably the most touching moment within the whole film, and one of the few where I really thought I was getting to know what was going on inside the mind of the characters – but at that point, the film has ten minutes left to run and it all seems just a little too late. Fran Tirado, deputy editor of Out Magazine said of the film, “[it] seemed to be a very long, very beautifully art-directed gay porn, but with not as much sex, or plot.” It’s a quote that seems to sum the film up well.
It was ten years ago this year (October 2009) that the BBC’s Question Time reached an audience of eight million viewers for the only time in its lengthy history. The reason? Well, that was human curiosity at the inclusion of the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, on the panel. For those that don’t remember, the invite to Griffin to appear on the show caused considerable controversy. There were protests and complaints. Columns in the national press suggested that Griffin’s appearance would normalise the BNP and make it seem just like any other political party. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that it would “legitimise” the views of the BNP and compared the party to fascism and the National Front. It didn’t happen. Griffin was revealed to be the vile creature he was. At the election in 2010, less than a year after the Question Time appearance, the BNP contested 339 seats. They won just 1.9% of the national vote despite the number of contested seats, and the average votes per candidate had gone down from the 2005 number, despite (or perhaps because of) the publicity on the BBC programme.
Let’s skip forward a few months to the election campaign in 2010 and Gordon Brown being recorded by accident telling those travelling with him in his car that the woman who he had just been speaking to was “bigoted” after she complained to him about the amount of Eastern Europeans “flocking” to the country, and about there being too many immigrants. The media jumped on him for his comments, and he apologised. More than that, he then went back for a forty minute chat with the woman in order to try to save face. But what had happened between October 2009 and April 2010? Nick Griffin was lambasted and reviled for his views on Question Time (and rightfully so) and yet there was outrage when Gordon Brown called out a woman for being bigoted for her views on immigration, but little anger for what she had actually said.
My suggestion is that it was that moment, “Bigot-gate,” when the seed was sown for Brexit. It wasn’t Question Time, accused of legitimisising the views of the far-right by allowing Nick Griffin to appear and show himself to be a vile human being, it was Gordon Brown apologising for the bigot comment. By apologising (and some might say grovelling), Brown did something that neither Griffin or Farage had managed to do – he admitted it was OK, legitimate, to think what Mrs Duffy thought about immigration and air those views in public. It’s certainly true that, in comparison to what many have said since (or what Griffin was saying at the time), her comments were relatively tame, but that is beside the point because everything we have now, not least Brexit, but also the racism, the xenophobia, the Islamophobia, the increased homophobia and misogyny – all of which we see on a daily basis on Twitter and in newspaper headline, and overhear down the pub – stems from Gordon Brown’s apology. In apologising, effectively saying that it wasn’t bigoted or wrong to have those thoughts, Gordon Brown brought bigotry, hatred, and the distrust of those unlike ourselves back into the mainstream. He gave Mrs Duffy a voice. It opened the floodgates; people need no longer be ashamed of what they thought about any group of people.
This begs the question of what should Brown have done once he had said Mrs. Duffy was a bigot? The answer, in all likelihood, is that he should have gone on TV, smoothed things over by saying he had chosen his words badly, and then gone on to explain why what had been said had upset him so much in the first place and why it had no place in British society. Instead, the opposite happened.
While Nick Griffin sank back into obscurity, the next couple of years saw many changes. Immigration became a core policy of the coalition government formed in 2010, and, beyond that, political language changed – it was fine for Cameron & Co to name and shame those they thought were responsible for the state of the nation. Immigrants weren’t the only enemy of the people, but also the unemployed (people were either workers or shirkers) and the disabled who couldn’t work. The people wanted someone to blame for the financial crash, and, now he felt he could pick on certain groups, naming and shaming them for all to see. It was OK to do that now.
Then, of course, there was the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular, leading his party in the 2013 local elections to 23% of the vote. Within three years of Mrs Duffy’s comments about immigration, one in four people at the polling booth were voting UKIP (in the wards where they put forward a candidate). By 2014, Mrs Duffy’s comments seemed mild compared to what Farage was saying at his party conference:
“In scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable. Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”
(Nigel Farage, 2014 UKIP conference speech)
And this, of course, is the kind of rhetoric and opinion that led many to vote for Brexit in 2016. Would Farage have been saying this if Gordon Brown hadn’t opened the door for him by legitimising this train of thought? Would Boris Johnson be getting away with his “letterbox” and “bank robber” comments? We shall never know for sure, but for me there is a clear trajectory. Without the “bigot” incident there would have been be no legitimate voice for UKIP, without that there would have been no referendum in an attempt to stop Tory voters flocking to UKIP, and without the referendum we wouldn’t be where we are now as new year begins with the UK in chaos. Oh, Gordon Brown and Mrs. Duffy, what a wonderful thing hindsight can be.
During a career of seventeen years, cut short at the age of thirty-seven, Bobby Darin did it all. He recorded well over five-hundred songs ranging from jazz and swing through to folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and virtually everything in between; was a composer of dozens of songs and film scores; played piano, guitar, harmonica, drums, and the vibraphone; was a record producer; made over two-hundred television appearances; was an Oscar-nominated actor; hosted his own variety show; and was hailed as one of the greatest live performers of his time.
Bobby Darin: Directions covers all of these facets of Darin’s career, but tells its story through his recordings, taking the reader session by session, song by song, on a journey from his first tentative session in 1956 through to his final one in 1973.
This significantly expanded and revised edition of 2015’s “A Listener’s Guide” provides a commentary on Darin’s vast and varied body of work, while also examining in detail how he, his recordings, films, and television and live performances were discussed in newspapers, magazines, and trade publications from the 1950s through to the 1970s. The text of the second edition is around 40% longer than the first (in terms of word count) and much of that is taken up by examining nearly 600 contemporary articles and reviews, telling for the first time how Bobby’s life and career played out in the printed media, and often forces us to question our understanding of both the man and his music. All of Bobby’s music is discussed, up to and including Go Ahead and Back Up, issued in 2018.
Perfect for both dedicated fans and those approaching Darin’s work for the first time, this is the ultimate book on the career of one of the most electrifying performers of the 20th Century.
Large format paperback (7 inch by 10 inch). Over 100 black and white illustrations including rare record sleeves from around the room and candids previously unpublished in book form. 465 pages.
Paperback available from all Amazon sites. Please note that there are no plans for a Kindle edition at this time.
In February 1917, jazz was recorded for arguably the first time when the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded Dixieland Jass Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues. I say “arguably” because it depends on your definition of what jazz music is. For example, thirteen tracks (mostly ragtime) precede these recordings on the masterful Le Grande Histoire du Jazz, a collection of 100 CDs released in four boxed sets that almost singlehandedly made the case for the EU public domain fifty-year rule for recorded music. In other words, buy them now if you don’t already have them – the prices have already started rising.
But I digress. This modest post takes a look at advertisements and reactions in the press to those early recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band. We start with the New York Times, and an advertisement for an appearance by the band less than one month before they made recorded music history.
Five years ago, when the Viva for my PhD was approaching, I was worried about it and was told to look at it in a different way – that someone had bothered to read my work from beginning to end, they had engaged with it, and they wanted to debate it. In other words, it was a compliment, not something to worry about. In hindsight, that is a good way of looking at it – although it doesn’t stop the stress at the time.
But I am getting concerned how some academics and other writers not only run away in fright of someone reading and challenging and debating their work, but view it as an act of aggression. It seems that it is believed that it is a God-given right that they/we can write something, advertise on social media that they/we have written it and thus draw attention to it, and then not want people to do anything but provide unequivocal praise.
We should not be turning into an academic equivalent of the Memphis Mafia – saying “that’s right” to every utterance, and unable to question ideas, theories and, yes, supposed facts. If people publish something, and/or draw attention to their work, then they should expect it to be debated in a rigorous fashion. Are we really heading to a position where a conference panel ends not with questions from the audience but with compliments from the audience in case the questions are a tad awkward and draw attention to something we haven’t considered?
Academia and academic writing cannot and should not be a place inhabited by those who want to type away in an office with a closed door and the phone off the hook, who then go to the door and shove their latest article out into the public domain through the gap at the bottom, before running back to their chair ready to don blindfolds and earplugs so they can’t see any negative or challenging reactions to it.
Anyone happy and confident with their work and their research would not be fearing debate. And how boring it would be if this became the norm. I could never imagine Pauline Kael disagreeing with Andrew Sarris but keeping quiet about it in case she hurt his feelings. While that kind of academic jousting might not be for all, hiding away from dissenting voices must not be the way forward.
Sadly, as so much debate is now done on social media, hiding away is much easier. We can block anyone on Facebook or Twitter who is asking awkward questions and debating our ideas. But we need to remember that there is a world outside our offices, or bedrooms, or wherever we write and think. And perhaps if we as writers and, indeed, as human beings, ventured out there a bit more often and spoke to people other than those who we know will agree with us, we might learn something, and most definitely might be more rigorous in our own ideas.
And, of course, I write this at the same time as it is announced that next year will see the formation of a new academic journal for controversial ideas, where academics can publish anonymously if they are worried they might receive a backlash to their work. Jeff McMahan, one of the organisers of the journal, has been quoted as saying, “it would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym.” How the hell did we come to THIS? Surely, part of the reason why the country is so divided is because people can hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts and spout as much drivel as they want without any fear of reprisals? Do we want an academic world that works in the same way? Haixin Dang and Joshua Habgood-Coate recently wrote in a piece about the formation of the journal:
When it is working well, academic inquiry is a conversation. Researchers make claims and counterclaims, exchange reasons, and work together to open up new fields of inquiry. A conversation needs speakers: we need to keep track of who is talking, what they have said before, and who they are talking to. Pseudonymous authorship is an opt-out from the conversation, and the academic community will be worse off if its members no longer want to engage in intellectual conversation.
If we have ideas, theories, plans, or arguments, then it is our duty to own them and be confident enough in them to be able to argue our position – and there is nothing wrong with hearing what others have to say about those ideas and then changing our own minds. That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.
I recently read an article that said the following:
There is (on occasion) a little too much saccharine camaraderie, perpetuating an old-school sort of club that I’d rather watch die than thrive. While rivalries and debates are often more romantic in retrospect — the great one-liners and the heightened emotions enduring more than the petty squabbles and bruised egos — they not only add colour but scrutinize critical discourse. Art and criticism might not be a race, but sometimes a little head-butting forces us to be more firm and more resolute in our hot takes — or even better, open to the idea that those who disagree with you might be onto something.
And yes, I realise that not all authors or academics (and it should be reiterated that this goes beyond academia) are the head-butting, argumentative type, but that does not mean that anyone should be hiding behind the sofa in case a negative response or difficult question is aimed towards them. Debate doesn’t have to be confrontational – but it is likely to become more confrontational when you start being defensive or simply run away from it!
I should, of course, say that comments are welcome 😉