Sunday, 27 January 2008

Spamalot and Other Palaces of Delight

Our Christmas present from our daughter and son-in-law was (were?) tickets for Monty Python's Spamalot. This naturally elicited whoops of joy from the lucky recipients, who planned a princely day out in London which happened yesterday.

The Great Wen treated us to bright sunshine and blue sky when we emerged from Warren Street tube station. It made Tottenham Court Road look picturesquely scruffy rather than depressingly drab, but we didn't care - we were off to our first Palace of Delights: Waterstone's in Gower Street.

Having parked my non-bookish husband in the basement coffee shop with a latte and the Saturday paper, I wended (wound?) my way upstairs to the secondhand department, an Aladdin's Cave to a bookaholic whose purse is never big enough to buy all she would like. I was only constrained in my purchases by what we could carry, but I was delighted with my Catch of the Day (see end of post).

Then we walked down Gower Street, passing RADA, The School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and various houses with blue plaques, including this one for Millicent Garrett Fawcett,

until we reached our next Palace, the British Museum.

The BM's current blockbuster exhibition is The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army but here lack of forward planning (viz. not checking to see if we needed to book) meant the only disappointment of the day (or an excuse to come back again soon). We won't make the same mistake with Hadrian: Empire and Conflict which opens on 24 July.

And so, we retreated, chins quivering, to console ourselves with coffee in the lightsome and elegant Great Court

before heading to our favourite parts of the BM: the King's Library

and the Rooms containing Lindow Man, the Vindolanda Tablets and the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial.

After a brisk stroll down Charing Cross Road (so many bookshops, so little time), lunch was had in the National Portrait Gallery's rather poky basement caff, whose filthy cutlery we hesitated to complain about for fear of being responsible for a Pythonesque mass staff suicide.

Having recovered from this trauma, we ambled through the galleries in a roughly chronological fashion, but barely reached the 19th century before it was time to set off for the theatre. It was thrilling to see our history through the people who made it, and the NPG never fails to delight and enthrall. I should add that I'm a bit of a philistine where Great Art is concerned, rather like Tony Hill who memorably said in a recent episode of Wire in the Blood: "I don't know anything about art. I don't even know what I like." Hmm. I think I like Rembrandt and Turner and Vermeer, but I've no idea why. So the National Gallery round the corner from the NPG in Trafalgar Square is somewhere I know I ought to visit, but rarely do.

Our final Palace of Delights actually had "palace" in its name: The Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, facing on to Cambridge Circus. Here it is in all its glory. rather like many-tower'd Camelot (although it was built in the 1890s by Richard D'Oyly Carte).

Spamalot was a hoot from start to finish, a panto for grown-ups, a comical send-up of musicals in general and a genuine olde rippe-offe of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, complete with the clip-clop coconuts, the Knights Who Say "Ni", the French Taunters and the added bonus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life tacked on from Life of Brian, lo, even unto the audience singalong at the end. Oh, and the voice of John Cleese as God. We wondered how they would do King Arthur's dismembering fight with The Black "it's only a scratch" Knight. Ingenious. Side-splitting. Do see it if you get the chance.

Only make sure you don't get seats with the tallest man in the world sitting in front of you, and behind you the woman who does the world's loudest braying donkey impressions (was she part of the act?).

And finally, here's my Catch of the Day, all from Waterstones's Secondhand Department except for Paths of Exile which arrived in the post whilst we were out. And presiding over all is Henry, the Intellectual Indian Runner Duck. You can't see in the photo but he's wearing specs and is carrying a book and an apple. And a tag with his name on it on a piece of string round his neck. In case he get so absorbed in his book he forgets who he is. A bit like me, really.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Book Review: The Islamist by Ed Husain

The Islamist is neatly summed up by its own subtitle: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left.

Ed Husain was born in the East End of London into a family of Indo-Bangladeshi origin and raised in the traditional spiritual Islam of the Indian subcontinent. As an intelligent, idealistic but naive teenager he joined a succession of increasingly extreme Islamist organisations until at around the age of twenty he was a leading student agitator for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whose aim was (and probably still is) to establish a worldwide fundamentalist Islamic state, by force if necessary.

Gradually he became disillusioned with Hizb-ut-Tahrir's emphasis on a political rather than a spiritual form of Islam (his colleagues would routinely speak of popping into the mosque to "drop" their prayers, as if relieving themselves of a tiresome burden), and with its wilful misreadings of the Quran to justify its racist policies and advocacy of terrorist acts against non-Muslims. He was also dismayed at the inability of Islamist ideologues to explain without resorting to the rhetoric of terror how they would bring about an Islamist state. But the turning point came when a Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporter stabbed a black Christian youth to death outside his college. Husain withdrew from Islamism and set about rediscovering the spiritual Islam of his youth.

In his journey into Islamist fundamentalism, Ed Husain describes the classic brainwashing techniques and bully-boy tactics of religious and political cults the world over, whilst his retreat from it brings to mind accounts like those in The God That Failed which chart the disillusionment of various European intellectuals with Communism after World War II.

Ed Husain also provides a cogent explanation for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the United Kingdom: "the multiculturalism fostered by the Labour government [which] had created mono-cultural outposts in which the politics of race and religion were now being played out before my eyes"; the same government's mistaken inclination to regard the Muslim Council of Britain as the voice of the moderate Muslim majority; and the (understandable) failure of the real moderate Muslim majority to distance itself from the fanatics: "if British policy makers and elected officials are content to tolerate intolerance and give a platform to those who are committed to destroying democracy and advocate religion-based separatism, why should a minority Muslim population turn on its own?" And on top of all this, let's not forget the insidious influence of Wahhabi fundamentalism propagated by foreign imams in British mosques funded by Saudi Arabia (which Husain, from firsthand experience, shows as the horrific epitome of our worst nightmare: an Islamist state of the type that Hizb-ut-Tahrir would force us all to live in, a totalitarian theocracy devoid of democracy and freedom of expression, rife with religious and racial intolerance, sexual repression, barbaric punishments, oppression of women and homosexuals - you get the picture.)

And yet the book finishes on a note of hope: "...all is not lost, for there are signs of a resurgence of interest in spiritual rather than political Islam...a more tolerant, inclusive, flexible approach both to scripture and to life. Without doubt, a British Islam is emerging. It remains to be seen whether it will be in harmony with the world in which it finds itself, or if it rejects and repels it."

The lucid, well-reasoned and heartfelt argument presented in The Islamist makes it a must-read for everyone concerned for the future of Islam and for the peace and security of our world.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Sussex Back-to-Backs

On a recent ramble we came across a fascinating house called Great Wapses Farm, near Twineham, West Sussex.

The footpath took us past the front of the house, which looked like this:

Then it led us round to the back of the house, which looked like this:

As we were gawping in amazement, the owner came out and explained that the timber and brick house was built in the early 17th century and the Georgian house added to its back in about 1720. It's now all one house. Apparently, there are only about 40 such houses in England, mainly in Sussex, the rest in Suffolk.

I wondered if the owner of the earlier house had gone up in the world, perhaps having profited from enclosing land, and had built himself an elegant house a la mode on the back of the old one, facing away from the farmyard.

A couple of weeks later on a ramble that began in Warnham, West Sussex, we hoped to find the poet Shelley's childhood home at nearby Field Place. But no public footpath runs within viewing distance so when we got home, I Googled Field Place. Imagine my surprise when this came up:

The website where I found this photo explains:

Although Field Place was "improved" by successive owners over the years, the house has now been meticulously restored to its eighteenth-century condition by Kenneth Prichard Jones, a past president of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. The house is composed of several architectural elements (for a thorough analysis of the architecture, see K. Prichard Jones, "The Influence of Field Place and its Surroundings upon Percy Bysshe Shelley" in the Keats-Shelley Review). The original thirteenth-century medieval section held the kitchen in Shelley’s time. There is also a fourteenth-century central addition.

There are more photos of Field Place on the website.

Finally, back to Twineham, then, where there's an unusual brick church built in around 1516, replacing an older building from about 1290. British History Online has this (and more) to say about it, as well as more about Great Wapses and other historic houses around Twineham:

The church of St. Peter is a small structure consisting of a chancel with a modern north organ-chamber, nave, south porch, and west tower, with a shingled oak spire. The walls are of brick, with remains of original plastering outside; the roofs are covered with Horsham stone slabs. The church was built in the first or second decade of the 16th century, probably on the site of an earlier building.


The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

On Saturday, 19 January the BBC2 historical documentary series Timewatch will be showing a programme about William Marshal, the greatest knight of the Middle Ages. Elizabeth Chadwick has written two acclaimed novels about him, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. Carla Nayland posted a perceptive review of The Greatest Knight on her blog here.

Elizabeth Chadwick's latest novel, A Place Beyond Courage, is about William Marshal's father, John.

These are thoroughly absorbing novels, rich in character and atmosphere, from an author who, having found her true metier, has grown in stature and maturity. It seems that her novels are at last beginning to reach the wide readership they deserve.

If you're interested in how a historical novelist goes about her research, visit Elizabeth Chadwick's blog Living The History. It doesn't all come from books, you know.