Thursday, 26 September 2013

One Year Ago - Cincinnati

Seeing as it's a year ago since I went to America and given how jealous I am getting of this year's Nottingham Roosevelt Scholars, I thought I'd wallow in nostalgia for a bit and do a short series of re-posts from exactly a year ago - it's amazing how quickly the time goes isn't it!

About a year ago I was enjoying the contrasting stories of Cincinnati (behold my spelling skills still holding up!).  

Friday, 20 September 2013

Review: 1984, Nottingham Playhouse

One of my New Year's Resolutions was to attend the theatre more so I was excited to see that as part of their 50th Anniversary season, Nottingham Playhouse were putting on a production of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four.  A long time fan (not to say obsessive) of Orwell (one of the many reasons for my visit to Jura earlier this year) and lover of the book I was one of the first to buy my ticket when they went on sale.  

I went on one of the 'preview' nights, mainly because the tickets are much cheaper (eleven quid for an evening of live entertainment in the city centre - what a deal!) and was pleased to see that the place was pretty much a sell-out.  

As you can see from my breathless tweets immediately afterwards, I was some what impressed - this was one of the best pieces of theatre I've seen in a long time.  It is a stylistically triumphant, sensitively adapted and compelling piece of theatre that has made me re-assess one of my favourite books.  I urge you to buy some tickets now before they sell out.  

It's worth noting that the play is run in one complete chunk - no interval so you're in your seat for over an hour and a half without a break.  This was definitely the right artistic decision and it's a tribute to the quality of the performances that at no point did I feel the need to sneak out for a break.  

I'm not going to do a detailed run through of the production as I would like you to discover it for yourself but I've got just a few observations I'd like to share.  This is a little bit limited by the fact that I only started to scribble down some thoughts part way through the production and was hampered by the lack of light and something to write on - so this is based on what I could scrawl on the back of my ticket!  Note also that the below assumes that you are familiar with the original story.  If you're not then go out and read it!

Plotting.  This was always going to be a challenge for the team writing the adaptation as Orwell's original text really wasn't that strong on plot - the awkward interpolation of Goldstein's Book and the appending of the essay on NewSpeak were obviously tack-ons from a writer desperate to get all his ideas out and into what turned out to be his last book before his untimely death.  Bernard Crick's biography of Orwell reveals some interesting details of how Orwell had to resist attempts from his American publisher to remove these sections.  What you have in the original is a fairly limply plotted story - but then fundamentally it's a novel of ideas rather than action.  This theatrical production neatly sidesteps these challenges by throwing you directly into things, in media res, using the conceit of a book group from the future, discussing not the novel but Winston Smith's diary which in this future world has been rescued and published.  This creation of a new world as a bubble around the world that Orwell creates is a very neat addition.  The fact that the actor playing Winston slips in and out of these two worlds only further adds to his (and our) dislocation and sense of disorientation.  

Language.  This is the key way that disorientation is achieved in the book - we have to work hard to understand what's going on with the use of NewSpeak throughout and this difficulty not only generates meaning but also creates a sense of distance that makes it clear that this is a different world - not one that far away from where we are now but definitely different.  In a live performance like a film or play this is a hard technique to replicate - the audience doesn't have time to learn a whole language or to flick back and forth to remind themselves what a particular word means so a lot of the NewSpeak is removed from this production.  However, the effect of confusion and distancing is an important one to have in place and this production amply achieves this by the  switching back and forth between the "present' (1984) and the future (some time around 2050) with the Winston character being something of both a participant and bemused observer in both.  (This issue around managing the use of language was, of course, a similar problem to that faced by Kubrick in his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange for the screen - one that he neatly and cinematically managed by using the speeding up of images and the booming classical music soundtrack to achieve a similar end, especially in the more extreme scenes of sex and violence).  As a final point on language, I was intrigued that one of the key passages in the book, Winston's fervent belief that, "If there is hope it lies in the proles" was not present in this production.  There was a number of times when I was expecting it to be used but then the script shied away - a curious decision.  

Design.  Here the production really triumphed.  The setting for the first half of the play is a claustrophobic multipurpose space that variously represents: Winston's front room, the canteen at the Ministry of Truth, the future book group, O'Brien's apartment and Charrington's shop.  Again, this constant switching between different locations and repetition of some scenes several times helps create the sense of confusion, paranoia and control that Orwell wanted in his original text.  Two moments of transformation however take this a step beyond and elevated the whole production to a frankly astonishing level of quality.  The first is when Winston first goes with Julia to the back room of Charrington's shop.  They disappear off stage left and after a momentary pause the action in the room off-stage is projected through a video link onto a screen on the top of the main performing stage.  You are at this point watching a live production of an adaptation of a novel with the actors off stage being videoed and broadcast live on a screen on-stage.  A tour-de-force in conception and execution.  Of course, this all talks very clearly to the omni-presence of Big Brother and the hidden telescreen in the back room that ultimately leads to the betrayal of Winston and Julia - the audience is encouraged to ask, "are we watching through the telescreen alongside the Thought Police?".  The second moment of design is one that borders on theatrical genius and leads on directly from this train of thought.  At the moment that Winston realises that he has been betrayed or otherwise discovered (incidentally, I love the fact that this is left ambiguous in the book) the stage erupts into a cacophony of noise and light.  The claustrophobic setting we have become used to for the first half of the play is transformed in what feels like only a few moments into a stark white cube - welcome to Room 101.  Sirens blare and the lights go bright white and the walls of the stage move off into the wings.  Bit by bit the stage is dismantled and carted away, leaving Julia in the shell of the back room, vulnerable and alone and with the Thought Police moving closer and closer.  The addition of a V-For-Vendetta style mask to the uniform of the Thought Police is a smart little nod to the current political protest culture.  After what feels like a moment but is certainly much longer you are exited out of one of the most absorbing moments in live theatre I've ever seen into the relative calm of an interrogation room in the Ministry of Love.  You can imagine the rest...

Exhausting, exhilarating and edifying this is a not-to-be-missed treat - the play is only on until 28th September so move fast to get to see it before it's too late.  

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

One Year Ago - New York

Seeing as it's a year ago since I went to America and given how jealous I am getting of this year's Nottingham Roosevelt Scholars, I thought I'd wallow in nostalgia for a bit and do a short series of re-posts from exactly a year ago - it's amazing how quickly the time goes isn't it!

About a year ago I was just leaving New York after a brisk 48 hour visit and ready to start on the rest of my adventure!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Further House Research

Follow on from this post, I've found some time to do more research on the previous owners and occupiers of my house.

I've done a couple of sessions of research at both the Local Studies Library at Nottingham's Central Library and the Nottinghamshire Archives. I should pay tribute at this stage to the staff at both these institutions - they've been very patient with my odd demands and seemed to take a genuine interest in what I was trying to research.  

From the last update you'll see that I was only able to examine the Electoral Register from 1932 onwards at the Central Library - for a variety of reasons including damage during World War Two, the City's records are incomplete. Bizarrely therefore I had to go to the County Council Archives (which is located in the City boundaries) to examine the City's Electoral Register records. (Given the records are all on Microfiche I'm not sure why they can't simply be given a copy but there we go).

The set-up at the Archives is great - useful opening hours including Saturday morning and very helpful staff. Many of the records in wanted were in open access but I believe you have to request some things from the "stacks" which are delivered on a timetable throughout the day.

I previously knew from the earliest records in the Library that from the early 1930s my house was occupied by the Bonnallo family.  From the records at the Archives I was able to track this backwards to when the house was built.  

The house first appears in the register for 1912 - confirming once and for all that the house is Edwardian rather than Victorian.  Of course the architectural styles are naturally somewhat fluid but it's good to have clarity on the date at least.  Interestingly, this is ten years or so before the covenants that appear in my deeds that set me off on this research in the first place.  

The first resident listed in the Register is Raynor Thomas.  (The microfiches from this time period are very poor or I'd show an image of it).  Looks like Mr Thomas lived there until around 1920 when James William Board moved in.  

1920 Electoral Register
He was joined by his wife in 1924;

1924 Register
And then in 1925 we find our old friends the Bonnallos in residence.  

The Bonallos arrive in 1925
Their son, Leonard, comes of age in 1926 meaning that he'd be 105 years old now, potentially his descendants still live in Nottingham.  

How different would being 18 be in 1926?
As we know from my previous work, this family lived in my house until well into the 1970s, followed by a series of shorter term residents.  

Look clear enough, doesn't it....?

But prior to this visit I'd done some work back in Central Library using their collection of Street Directories.  These are a kind of precursor to the Yellow Pages / Thomson Local (as an aside, is anyone else still mildly astonished when one of those books arrives through the letterbox at home? In my house it has an extraordinarily short existence before hitting the recycling box - it's almost as if the companies behind them haven't quite heard of the internet...) but included private residents too if they paid the subscription fee. You can see some digital examples here if you're interested.  

The Central Library has a good collection of these, albeit stored away from open access so you have to request the librarians to get them for you. They are very accommodating however and even procured me a special pillow to rest the volumes on to protect the original bindings.
The story that the Directories told was interesting but also contradictory to the Electoral Register - the plot thickens!

The records from the early 1920s broadly match - in 1922 Kelly's Directory has James William Board listed.  

Apologies for the poor quality - it's an illicit camera phone photo
And thereafter we have some interesting detail with the Bonnallo family appearing in yet another spelling variant of Brownallo in 1928;

Misprint, mistake or variable Anglicising of Italian name?
Thereafter we see Bonnallo in place as expected and the Directories tended to drift into obscurity shortly after.  

But it's what we see in the years before 1922 that's most interesting.  

In 1913/14 when the Register shows Raynor Thomas we have Mrs Clara Hodges in the Directory;

Note the neighbour's job
In 1916 when Raynor Thomas is still registered to vote, there is a Percy Lord (a "Grocers' Assistant" - love the implications of being an assistant to multiple grocers...) listed as trading from this address;

Apologies again for v poor quality image
And the records show that his wife (?) joined the family firm a few years later in 1920.  

So, we have one person registered to vote and a series of other people living and trading from the house.  I need to refresh my memory of the voting rules at this time - I think you could be registered if you owned a property but not actually live there and live there but own insufficient property to qualify to vote.  

The interesting thing of course is that the 1920 deeds show the guy selling on to James Board being a William Richmond so at that time you've got Raynor Thomas living there and registered to vote whilst the house is owned by someone else.  The deeds for the next door house show the same William Richmond selling the house at the same sort of time - looks like he owned a chunk of the whole street for 10 or so years after building them: renting them out until subsequently selling out.  There's also a character called James Bell mentioned in the deeds who is involved in some way too.  

All very confusing and lots of avenues to continue researching.  

Next time out I'm planning to explore;

- Getting to the bottom of the early years of the residents including looking at the voting rights at the time.  I want to know who the Lord family were in particular.  
- The collection of local plans and maps in the Archives - hopefully showing the construction of the houses up my street from the main road - I can imagine it winding slowly upwards and away and the city developed
- The will for the Mortgagee of my property (Mary Jackson) in the 1920s (as per my first post) to see if I can find out any more about her.  
- See if I can trace the Bonnallo descendants who might still be living in Nottingham.  

Monday, 9 September 2013

One Year Ago - Pre-Departure

Seeing as it's nearly a year ago since I went to America and given how jealous I am getting of this year's Nottingham Roosevelt Scholars, I thought I'd wallow in nostalgia for a bit and do a short series of re-posts from exactly a year ago - it's amazing how quickly the time goes isn't it!

About a year ago I was making my final preparations for departure and getting all maudlin about Nottingham.  

Please do follow this year's Scholars on their blogs and tweets - I'm sure they'll have as fascinating and rewarding time as I did

Rebecca Wilson is blogging here and tweeting here

Sacha Wise is blogging here and tweeting here

Ioney Smallhorne is blogging here and tweeting here

Francesca Pearson isn't up and running yet with her social media but I'll update this when she is.  

Sandeep Gill is tweeting here

Daniel Walsh is tweeting here

Best of luck to you all!

Friday, 6 September 2013

Nottingham City Boundaries

I was fascinated by this new article yesterday.  Apart from the total astonishment that Nottingham Tories have actually managed to up with a policy proposal, I was even more impressed that it's one that I can broadly support.

I think there are some tweaks to be done to the actual map proposed but anything that sorts out the frankly mad political boundaries of the city and conurbation has to be a good thing.  I droned on at length about this here so won't rehash it all but suffice to say, sign me up to the campaign!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Out of Town Shopping

Fascinating article here which taught me some of Nottingham's retail history I didn't know. 

When I was in America, the impact of an almost wholesale move to out of town shopping was one of the things I really disliked - showing people I met photos of Sherwood high street or the pedestrianise city centre almost always elicited wistful sighs of longing...

And you can look closer to home at cities like Sheffield where the impact of Meadowhall has been to turn the city centre into a shadow of its former self.