Grand Hotel, low-cost Design

Perhaps memories of Springtime for Hitler (from The Producers) were too fresh. But when, on New Year's Day, I saw the cast of Grand Hotel at the Donmar Warehouse (set in 1928 Berlin) start dancing in rotating crosses, it did take me a moment to realise that they were not, in fact, swastikas, but the revolving hotel doors.

It is an energetic performance. Initially I wondered if it was going to be a collection of vignettes of goings-on at the hotel, but soon threads are woven into a more conventional plot. Some characters are redeemed; others fall; and a tragic ending is tempered by seeds of hope: an entertaining (if unchallenging) evening.

Earlier that afternoon I had visited the Design Museum (missing out on bumping into julietk on her visit there by just a couple of days). Although the Marc Newson exhibition (largely in the style of how the 1960s imagined the future) was OK, the Under a Tenner exhibition was the highlight for me: fourteen designers, each selecting ten examples of good design where each item must be under £10. These included (and now this turns into a Generation Game variant) a cardboard toilet, a Mini A-Z of London, a pack of playing cards, an insecticide-impregnated mosquito net, 10 jugs, flip-flops, and a disposable cardboard device for collecting and disposing of dog mess without getting near it. (I don't remember a cuddly toy there, but it's not impossible.)

The new semi-permanent exhibition, as well as including the London Underground exhibits, had an interesting section on book design (including lots of Penguins), but it was familiar from (and less comprehensive than) the Barbican's Communicate: British Independent Graphic Design since the Sixties exhibition (running until 23 January 2005). There was plenty to see there, with sections on Publishing (books, magazines, and newspapers), Identity (branding and logos), Arts (graphic design for museums, art galleries, and theatres), Music (record covers and posters), Politics and Society (which illustrated not only the style of design, but also the political controversies of the day), and Self-initiated Projects. I happily spent most of an afternoon pottering round it before Christmas.

Admission to Communicate also includes the Barbican's exhibition of Daniel Libeskind architecture. While I could appreciate the models, trying to visualise buildings based on architectural drawings themselves was tougher - rather like a concert where one strolls around an exhibition looking at pages of the score and getting only the occasional snatch of actual played music.

Stuff will Happen

A certain US Vice-President's oath of office

I, Richard Bruce Cheney, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and safely discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.

would probably lose some of its gravitas if delivered in the style of Frankie Howerd.

David Hare's new play Stuff Happens opens this week at the National Theatre, and I was amused to see that Dick Cheney is played by Desmond Barrit, whom I last saw in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, playing the role of cunning, brazen, and faintly camp Pseudolous. addedentry's prediction that there would be an article or three of background on the new play in the Guardian/Observer was proved correct on Sunday by the substantial Theatre of War.

(For those interested in such US political minutiae, there is apparently no fixed form of words for the oath of office for the Vice-President: while that of the President is defined in article II, section 1 of the constitution, the words above I had to transcribe from a BBC recording of the 2001 Inauguration.)

From spectare, frequentative of specere "to look"

On Saturday afternoon I saw Sondehim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the National Theatre. Subtle it was not, but as an downright flat-out funny farce (with songs), I greatly enjoyed it. (And it was good to see and, it turned out, swap books with helenbr, addedentry, huskyteer, and Emma.)

There was incredulous amusement in some quarters when I mentioned the Spectator was running a classics translation competition, so here are the details (Spectator, 31 July 2004, p.18):

The Spectator Classics Prize

We continue to receive entries of great brilliance for the Spectator Classics Cup, but in order to generate the greatest possible competition we remind readers of the rules.

...The competition is for a translation of any 200-word passage from The Spectator into Latin or Greek prose or verse. The prize is a bottle of champagne. At the end of the year, the Spectator Classics Cup will be awarded to the best entry.

As I think of the Spectator, Simon Hoggart, in the Guardian of 20 December 2003 (about two-thirds of the way down, but there's no HTML to denote that), wrote about an amusing spoof tape made for "Spectators for Africa" appeal, for assistance in sending copies of the magazine to that continent.

(I once confused a former colleague of mine about my political views (not that they're particularly secret) when I turned up to a training course on successive days with copies of the Economist and the New Statesman. Perhaps citing the Spectator and Guardian in the same LJ entry will have a similar effect...)

On the importance of editors...

...which might be an ironic subject for an LJ post.

BBC Radio 4's schedule for today (currently at http://www.bbc.co.uk/cgi-perl/whatson/search/daylist.cgi?tmp=whatson/sdk/radio4/daylist_radio4.tmpl&day=Today&service_id=49700):

00:00: Midnight News

The latest national and international news from BBC Radio 4, followed by Weather. ***is this really midnight - if not, just call it news!!!!***

I've also heard, recently on a Radio 4 news report and earlier in a staff newsletter, the construction "[the impact] cannot be underestimated" (emphasis mine). Might this be the new "could care less"?

History Boys, teachers real and archetypal, and tiny Da Vinci Code hints

A few weeks ago, I saw Alan Bennett's enjoyable The History Boys at the National Theatre. Set in a northern grammar school in the mid-1980s, we watch a group of sixth-form boys prepare to apply to Oxbridge to read history while also, the blurb says, "in pursuit of sex [and] sport" (not that the sport was particularly evident).

Their three teachers are Hector, a long-time English master teaching General Studies:

I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education. Which is not to say that I don't regard education as the enemy of education, too... Oh, it would be useful... every answer a Christmas tree hung with the appropriate gobbets. Except that they're learned by heart. And that is where they belong and like other the other components of the heart not to be defiled by being trotted out to order.

Irwin, a young supply teacher (later a journalist and political operative) brought in by an ambitious headmaster to arm the boys with charm, polish, and a presentational "sprig of parsley":

The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back, or, better still, the side. Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse. And since I mention Orwell, take Stalin. Generally agreed to be a monster, and rightly. So dissent. Find something, anything, to say in his defence. History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment. And if it isn't, make it so.

And Mrs Lintott, who gave these boys the "Firm foundations type of thing" in their A-levels:

They know their stuff. Plainly stated and properly organised facts need no presentation, surely.

The play reminded me of my Additional French (a one-year course in the fifth form which hovered, I think, somewhere between a GCSE and an AS-level). Our translation and oral teacher was like Mrs Lintott: we certainly worked, and practised, and while those lessons rouse no passionate memories, we certainly had every opportunity to know our stuff. (And the preparation for the oral exam taught me more than I've ever needed to know about the distillation of whiskey, which we had to encourage our examiner to start importing to France.) Our literature teacher, on the other hand, reminded me more of Hector (thinking only of the style of teaching and certainly not suggesting any impropriety on his part, I shall hasten to add). We studied Anouilh's Eurydice, reading it, discussing it (and digressing from it) to death and almost back; I walked into that examination brimming with ideas but with scant idea of what I would see when I opened the paper. (Bear in mind, though, that this was some 12 years ago, and looking back does have its risks.)

I almost wrote that I didn't recall an Irwin at my school. In mathematics (or, at least, mathematics examinations), there seems less scope for "finding [one's] way to the wrong end of seesaws" or "settling on some hitherto unquestioned... assumption then proving the opposite" (although I suppose denying the parallel postulate and deriving a non-Euclidean geometry in under an hour might impress). But Robert Ainsley's Bluff your way in Maths says, of university entrance exams,

The easiest exams to bluff your way through, because they rest on the excellent principle that the best way of solving a problem is the most economical, which is usually found by mathematicians who can't be bothered to churn through the standard, long-winded methods, often summed up as 'a lazy mathematician is a good mathematician'... Answers should be the minimum length and include phrases like:

  • by symmetry, we can show that...
  • it is obvious that...
  • intuitively, we can see that...
  • by continuity, we know that...

A mathematical Irwin would probably preach elegance and bold intuition rather than controversy: would this merely be a different scent of polish?

Bennett gives us a scene in schoolboy French (an improvisation set in a Paris brothel, transforming into a wartime Belgian hospital when the headmaster walked in). In contrast, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code carefully explains and translates to make sure no-one will be left behind, thus giving one less chance to feel accomplished/self-satisfied/smug (one of those irregular adjectives?) at working out what is going on. Adam Bloom (whose Radio 4 recording I went to see the week after julietk's visit) talked (unshamedly self-indulgently) about the comedian's challenge in erecting hedges which guide his audience to a punchline, not making the end too obvious but not losing them on the way, so the audience can feel good about itself: it probably applies similarly to novelists, playwrights, and the authors of adventure games. (At least those who run role-playing scenarios can tailor them if they turn out to have misjudged their players/audience, a luxury less available to the novelist or dramatist.) How much of this will make it into the broadcast The Problem With Adam Bloom I'm not sure, given the lengthy improvisation and short timeslot. (Our voicemail system at work makes recorded messages play faster and faster when you press "6" repeatedly, but doing that on the radio might be cheating.)

Other than this niggle, The Da Vinci Code is an enjoyable, fast-moving thriller with a backdrop of conspiracy theory, Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, which did well in the nibble-sized portions I normally get to read on Tube journeys, so I am looking forward to reading more of Brown's books.

East, West, Spain is best...

...at least when considering the three films I saw a couple of weeks ago.

First was Blue Gate Crossing, a Taiwanese film depicting the friendships and loves between three teenagers at school. While it was different from the formulaic Hollywood high school comedy, and showed a little of what life might be like in Taiwan, I'm afraid I didn't find it particularly engaging.

Next was Fahrenheit 9/11: Michael Moore's film charting George W Bush's career before politics, links between the house of Saud and the Bush family's business interests, the scandal of the 2000 Presidential election, and the US government's response to the events of 11 September 2001 (including the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Americans' civil liberties through the PATRIOT Act).

It is, straightforwardly, anti-Bush propaganda. There are some solid attacks on his record. And there are innuendos, rhetorical questions (after all, one can't be accused of inaccuracy if all one has done is ask a question), and easy sympathy winners (e.g. a mother grieving the loss of her son serving in Iraq) distracting attention from the real argument. While it is an interesting (and frequently entertaining) film, one should walk into the cinema aware that Moore may have replaced the sword of truth with a mere dagger of difficult-to-prove-technically-false, and mislaid the trusty shield of fair play altogether, when making this film. (Dave Kopel's Fifty-nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11 provides sceptical assessment.)

(In the UK, it would be difficult to describe party political broadcasts as popular and compelling viewing. (I seem to remember that broadcasters here were once all obliged to show their party political broadcast simultaneously, to deny viewers the option of escaping to a different channel.) Yet Fahrenheit 9/11 has done incredibly well both in the US and in the UK, and people pay to see this: a nice trick if one can pull it off: despite its nickname, I don't think 1987's Kinnock: The Movie quite had the same impact...)

Finally came Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education. The seeds of the story are sown in a abusive Catholic boarding school (Catholic boarding school rarely seem to get a glowing treatment in fiction) in Spain, but the film opens as two apparent friends from that school meet again years later... Whilst it was sometimes difficult to sympathise with the protagonists, I found the storyline (other than the school scenes) intriguing, and more than once there are revelations which cast a whole new light over what we had seen so far (although any more would be spoilerish, so I shall stop there): a thoroughly worthwhile trip to the cinema, this one.

Martin Wood, Olivier, and Lyttelton

While the Glastonbury attendance may have outnumbered us 750:1 last weekend, those of us who went back to Oxford for the Mathematical Institute reunion event did get an Acheson and du Sautoy guitar and trumpet duet which I suspect wasn't to be heard at the Festival...

About 200 people turned out for the event (including a surprising scattering of families). Because of the numbers attending, the lectures had been moved from the Mathematical Institute to the (rather more impressive) Martin Wood lecture theatre at the Clarendon Laboratory; because of the weather, the garden party moved indoors at St Cross College. Despite the numbers, there were few from my contemporaries, but I did run into a couple of faintly familar faces (Keble doing well because the event coincided with the college's own Old Members' event).

The lectures were, as promised, non-taxing (thankfully), although they both brought back memories of Waves and Diffusion, one of my less favoured first-year lecture courses. (One might have expected it in a talk on applied mathematics, but it came as more of a shock when we got to number theory.)

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At a theatre of a different sort a few weeks ago, I enjoyed the National Theatre's production of Cyrano de Bergerac with helenbr (who also commented on it; huskyteer also has a review).

Reading the cast list, we realised we'd missed a talk on (apparently) rich artistic history of the nose. Trying to think of noses of note ourselves (and with additional subsequent suggestions from addedentry), we did come up with Cyrano himself, Pinnochio, a hypothetical Cleopatra (Pascal's "Le nez de Cléopâtre: s'il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé"), and Tycho Brahe, with the possible addition of Julius Caesar (since I've not been able to find whether the Roman nose is connected specifically to him or more generally to Roman aristocracy).

And last night I saw Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis. Fortunately it was in translation: while the circle's being one-third empty on a Saturday evening surprised me, I suspect it would have been even emptier if Iphigeneia he en Aulidi were being staged. (One is reminded of the story - possibly apocryphal - of Harold Wilson's suggestion at the 1964 general election that, as well as moving Steptoe and Son from peak time on polling day, the BBC could "replace it with a Greek drama, preferably in the original".)

The language was modern but without any jarring anachronisms that stick in the memory (unlike Cyrano with its "breezeblock" and "Euros"). The production, on the other hand, had 20th century touches to it, with 1920s-ish music and occasional microphones, loudhailers, and helicopters (in sound effect only - no Miss Saigon extravaganza here!). The lighting was often dim, and the play ran relentlessly in a single act of two hours, resulting in an intense and slightly claustrophobic experience.

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The filing cabinet, the Imp, and the Greek

Given my habit of filing papers rather than throwing them away (I blame a history of serving as committee secretary topped off with three years of professional training), a search through my archives last week turned up an interesting variety of finds on the way before finding the documents I actually needed.

Some (for example my old college's grace) are interesting in their own right. Some, marking important events in my life, have personal significance which makes me reluctant to dispose of them. And some seem of little use now, but I harbour an optimistic hope that they might be of historical (for some sufficiently ungrandiose value of "historical") interest some day. (This might be a reader's equivalent of the Antiques-Roadshow-inspired but probably forlorn hope that one's knick-knacks will turn out to be lucrative collectibles.)

(But I'm mildly disappointed that I couldn't supply a committee representing undergraduate mathematicians with a copy of its constitution which I drafted many years ago (now reported missing). Checking my Friends list, three of you sat on the committee when this was agreed, and one engaged in spirited discussion with representatives of the faculty over the "chairman"/"chairperson" distinction: if any of you happen to have held on to a copy, could you let me know?)

This excavation of the filing cabinet's sediments was prompted by the arrival of an unexpected tax return in the post — which is at least less unpleasant than an unexpected hanging. That page led me on to the related bottle imp paradox, which I hadn't come across before. It comes from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson: in summary, you have the opportunity to buy a bottle containing an imp which will grant you whatever you desire, but before you die, you must sell the bottle for less than you paid for it (or, warns the elderly man who sells the bottle to Keawe, burn in hell for ever). You won't accept the bottle for free (because you will never be rid of it); you probably won't buy it for one penny (because that assumes you'll find someone who will accept the bottle for free); is there any price which one might pay? (I find myself reminded of the greater fool theory to justify buying overpriced shares: one knows somebody is going to end up holding them when the time the bubble bursts, but hopes it won't be oneself... However, the negative utility of eternal damnation doesn't fit terribly well into traditional investment appraisal methods.)

The literal jaws of hell also make an appearance in The Adoration of the Name of Jesus, on show at the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery, which helenbr and I saw on Saturday. (This was after making our way through the anti-war protests in Trafalgar Square which we hadn't known would be there.)

It was an enjoyable exhibition, with beautiful pictures which also jogged rusty memories of Bible stories and classical mythology. The progression in El Greco's style was probably clearest in the four versions of the Purification of the Temple (depicting Christ driving the moneylenders out), moving from the more naturalistic versions of the early 1570s on to the freer versions of the 1600s, when he was producing the works (for example St Peter) which look strikingly modern and whose style (the exhibition guide helpfully points out) would later inspire 20th century artists such as Picasso and Pollock.

(As we went for tea after emerging from the Gallery, the number of placards propped up outside the door of the Café in the Crypt at St Martin-in-the-Fields suggested that they were also having a busy afternoon catering for anti-war protestors who needed a break.)

Finally delurking

Last Wednesday I saw At the Drop of a Hippopotamus at the Bridewell Theatre, for an evening of Flanders and Swann songs performed by Tim FitzHigham and Duncan Walsh-Atkins.

Of my favourites, Ill Wind (based on Mozart's 4th Horn Concerto) was there, as was Madeira M'Dear (often quoted as an impressive example of zeugma, discussed by officialgaiman in his journal entry of 7 January 2004, and unzeugmatic when explaining his username). Sadly we didn't get their First and Second Law (of Thermodynamics).

FitzHigham's and Atkins's introductions and chat between the songs curiously blurred whether they were playing the parts of Flanders and Swann (delivering a script with references to living in Kensington and Battersea, and where our singer has a young and innocent relation who believes that Madeira M'Dear is about cake) or were 21st-century performers of these songs (with topical references to Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair). But given the topical nature of the original scripts, I'm not sure what the "right" thing to do would be. The approach of running through relevant news headlines of the time, as seen before repeats of Have I Got News For You? or Drop the Dead Donkey, might not work quite so effectively for events of the 1950s and 1960s.

(I faintly recall former Conservative MP Teresa Gorman and others appearing on television singing a variation on the Song of Patriotic Prejudice replacing the refrain "The English... are best" with "The British... are best", which could seem to miss much of the point of the original song... And in tracking down the lyrics for that song, I did find a few links to the IT elitists' The Hackers Are Best, which may deserve a mention, although the song is probably not quite so widely parodied as Gilbert and Sullivan's I am the very model of a modern Major-General, meta-satirised in I am the very model of a boring Usenet parody).

Taking advantage of the Evening Standard's recent generous offer, I also saw the 3D Haunted Castle at the London IMAX Cinema. It was the first time I had been to a three-dimensional film, and the technology was impressive. The reaction of the audience was different from that in the late 19th century: instead of shock at seeing the Lumière brothers' film of a train heading towards them (discussed, and partly debunked, in Stephen Bottomore's The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the 'train effect'), some were reaching out and trying to grab the images which appeared to hover directly before their faces. (Unfortunately the plot was truly flimsy, and seemed to be simply a pretext for showing off the 3D capabilities of the IMAX cinema, but for 45 minutes being shown off at could be a perfectly enjoyable experience.)

[Edit at 17:40 GMT: URL of The Panicking Audience... now corrected in the last paragraph.]

[Addendum on 9 January 2005: the original link now appears broken, but Google does give a few other sources for I am the very model of a boring Usenet parody.]