I’m the most useless blogger and I had a pretty reclusive existence for the first few months of the year (anxiety and general lethargy towards the things I was desperate to do throughout the original lockdown as well as the most disastrous haircut that I’m still growing out). It has been a beautiful spring, though it feels like autumn as I write this. I hope the long Jubilee weekend will provide some good hammock weather (I’m pretty bah humbug about the Jubilee itself – what a perfect distraction for Boris Johnson!).
I was completely enchanted by Norwich and don’t understand why I hadn’t visited before (it’s only two hours from Liverpool Street). I pushed the boat out a bit and stayed at the Maids Head Hotel, right by the Cathedral, which claims to be the oldest hotel in the country and is referenced in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (one of my favourite books) as Marian and Leo have lunch there after shopping for his green suit. It’s charmingly old fashioned and I could imagine Miss Marple staying there. I loved browsing the shops in the Lanes and the art nouveau Royal Arcade is enchantingly pretty. There’s a lovely exhibition called Scottish Women Artists: Transforming Tradition at the Sainsbury Centre. The University of East Anglia is very similar to Warwick, where I did my BA, though I don’t think we had any bluebell woods. Strangers’ Hall is an atmospheric and eccentric house museum (the Strangers were Flemish Protestant refugees who boosted the Norwich textile trade in the sixteenth century – someone ought to write a novel about them) and much nicer than the Castle Museum with its scary taxidermy and mannequins of Romans beating up Ancient Britons. The Plantation Garden, located in an abandoned chalk quarry, is a unique haven of tranquillity. I had the most amazing brownies at the Briton Arms Coffee House. I’m puzzled as to why Norwich isn’t as popular as, say, Bath or Canterbury as a tourist destination but the locals wisely seem to prefer it that way (see this article). Oh, and I also got a very decent charity shop book haul – always a sign of a successful trip. I definitely want to go back, especially if there’s a way to explore the Norfolk Broads by public transport.
I also took a 40-minute train journey to Cromer, which is one of the best seaside towns I’ve visited (it helped that I had a beautiful day for it), with none of the depressed vibes you often get by the sea. The beach, fish and chips, ice cream and independent shops were all top notch. It wasn’t all plain sailing as I found myself in a pickle when there was an accident on the line and all trains back to Norwich were cancelled but I’ve managed to more or less block that out. My taxi driver, a Norwich City FC supporter, had never thought about why they’re known as the ‘Canaries’ and I informed him it’s because the aforementioned Norwich Strangers were known for keeping canaries as pets.
Despite a (discretely managed) anxiety episode in the overcrowded Stonehenge exhibition at British Museum, I’ve regained my museum mojo in the past month or so, starting with 150 Years of the Royal School of Needlework: Catwalk to Crown (luckily the Fashion and Textile Museum never gets all that crowded). I’m in awe of the skilled hands (past and present) that created such intricate and original work. It also provided some inspiration for an education-related exhibition I’m working on (more details in due course). It’s on until September and I warmly recommend a visit (there are a number of nice places on Bermondsey Street for a coffee afterwards).
The book podcast that I’m currently hooked on is What Should I Read Next?, which, happily, has an extensive back catalogue. Anne Bogel’s knowledge and empathy make her the perfect bibliotherapist. Most of the guests are ‘ordinary’ (and extremely smart and articulate) people who don’t work in the book world and I find that so refreshing. One book that I probably wouldn’t have come across without the podcast is the delightful ‘middle grade’ novel To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer. A modern riff on The Parent Trap told in emails and letters, two single dads about to embark on the next step in their relationship hope that their chalk-and-cheese twelve-year-old daughters will become friends by sending them to the same summer camp. Needless to say, nothing goes according to plan and many beautiful relationships are formed in the process.
I’m still devoted to Team Body Project run by Daniel and Alex Bartlett (Daniel is the most reassuring man on my screen now that Jon Snow has retired from Channel 4 News) but I’m sure they’d agree that it’s good to mix things up. I’ve been really enjoying alternating their workouts with Grow With Jo’s – Jo has great energy and presence and her goofy ‘happy dance’ at the end of each routine makes you forgive all the sweat she’s inflicted.
For Christmas, I received tickets for a performance for Daniel Fish’s allegedly paradigm-shifting New York production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic. I was quite trepidatious but it is extremely clever and it’s faithful to the original text (apart from the manner of Jud’s death). I do think that Oklahoma! has the best book of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show. In Fish’s production, these characters are closer to hillbillies than good honest prairie folk (I’m sure Andrew Carnes owns a MAGA hat or two – getting Greg Hicks for the role was definitely luxury casting) and the whole vibe is willfully anti-romantic. It’s been dubbed ‘Sexy Oklahoma!’ which annoys me as Oklahoma! has always been sexy. I think ‘Rape-y Oklahoma!’ would be far more appropriate – in regard to Curly as much as Jud. In the 1955 film version, the divine Gordon MacRae’s Curly is the paragon of a romantic hero, a gentlemanly alpha male comfortable with his masculinity (see the way he’s neither turned on nor repelled by Jud’s dirty pictures) who absolutely adores Laurey and will be a model husband and dad. He isn’t very nice to poor Jud but Jud, played by tough-as-old-boots Rod Steiger, represents the bad apple who has to be removed in order so that Curly and Laurey and the good people of Oklahoma can embark on a bright new future (yes, I know…).
All that is dismantled by Arthur Darvill (who hasn’t got curly hair), with his leery lustful entitlement towards Laurey (Anouskha Lucas) as a trophy bride who comes with a farm. I think Jilly Cooper coined the term ‘Not safe in taxis’ for men who can’t keep their hands to themselves – well, this Curly definitely isn’t safe in surreys and when he sings about ‘isenglass curtains you can roll right down in case there’s a change in the weather’, he isn’t forecasting rain. There’s a similar sense of menace with James Davis as the not-overly-bright Will Parker (we all know how much dumb men can get away with and how some people find them oh so endearing). Ali Hakim is actually played fairly ‘straight’ (Stavros Demetraki is very funny – it’s a fantastic role as he gets most of the best lines) and Marisha Wallace’s Ado Annie is truly a force to be reckoned with.
I could definitely imagine Curly and Jud alternating like Mary Stuart and Elizabeth or Frankenstein and the Creature. Patrick Vaill’s Jud is more handsome than Curly and looks like he should be the lead in a Scandinavian crime series. Laurey actually appears happiest when she’s dancing with Jud at the box social and it’s strongly implied that she’s about to have sex with him in their confrontation scene (staged in the pitch dark, as is encounter between Curly and Jud in the smokehouse leading up to ‘Pore Jud is Daid’) before she changes her mind and he tries to rape her. Aunt Eller (Liza Sadovy) cuts a chilling figure in the way she pressures her niece into marriage to a man she doesn’t even like, motivated by her own lust for Curly and her first-hand experience of how difficult life is for an unmarried woman. It’s clear that Laurey and Curly’s marriage is going to be as much of a disaster as Julie and Billy’s in Carousel (worse, as there isn’t any real love between them). I’ll always prefer a more starry-eyed interpretation in which Laurey and Curly love each other but the way that this production keeps going around in my head is a sign of powerful theatremaking.
The Romantic Ideal
If I were Laurey, there’s no way I’d play hard to get.