Friday, 21 August 2015

Mi Buenos Aires querido

Something different again this week. Every now and then, I like to post something completely random on my blog. A couple of weeks ago it was opera. The thing I'm most likely to slide off-topic for, though, is tango. Weirdly, posts I've made about tango often prove to be the most popular. This week's post started off as a book review, but seems to have become a mini-essay on Buenos Aires. Like it says in the title (if you speak Spanish) this is "My Buenos Aires that I love." It's not a place I can be dispassionate about (much like the people who live there). Here's my take on Miranda France's take on Mi Buenos Aires querido. I hope you find it interesting.

Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France

Borges wrote that “You never leave [Buenos Aires] entirely, you keep rebuilding it through the faded snapshots that your memory throws up."

Buenos Aires is, in some ways, the ultimate city. It was built as a port, but over time the river has silted up. The original grand frontage of the city is now well inland and even the more modern port facilities are hardly used: big ships simply can't get into them any more.

Building in the old port area
It grew at a time when Argentina's agricultural produce – mainly beef – was exported all over the world, but the world has changed and Argentina is no longer the fantastically rich country that it was early in the 20th century. The city, with its opera house, its grand buildings, its elegant boulevards, and its air of self-importance, lives on as a memory of a city that time and geography have left behind. Buenos Aires exists because it is there. People like to live in cities and for thousands of miles there are no cities as splendid as the capital of Argentina, so people flock to it, even though it has no purpose.

The poor, discovering that their dream of Buenos Aires does not exist, live in vast shanty-towns or sleep on the streets in shelters that appear like piles of rubbish, The shelters and their inhabitants are, in turn, invisible in the alternative dream of the Argentine bourgeoisie hurrying between shopping malls and coffee shops.

Street dwellers in front of the Congress building

Buenos Aires is a city of fantasy. Everywhere you go – not even just the tourist areas – you hear tango, often thought of as the soul of Argentina, but – though it is taught in schools – not that many people actually dance

it. Emphatically proud of their city and their nation the Portenos, as the locals call themselves, still yearn to be European. With its Italian food, its English post boxes, its French architecture and its Spanish language, Argentina embodies Europe in a way that no European country does. Buenos Aires should replace Brussels as the natural home of the administration of the EU.

Every resident, every visitor, every passing tourist sees a different Buenos Aires and every travel book written about the place describes a different city. Miranda France’s Bad Times in Buenos Aires is no exception. Living there in the 1990s, Ms France inhabits a city defined by the Dirty War. I almost wrote “the after-effects of the Dirty War” but she argues powerfully that the War was unfinished business. The murderers still walked the streets; parents still searched for their lost children; the country was still cloaked in a pervasive gloom. The Buenos Aires that France lived in was an unhappy place and she describes an unhappy stay, but she does so with flashes of real understanding and an easy writing style.

Memorial to some of the victims of the Dirty War

I first visited Buenos Aires soon after she was there and I recognise the city she describes. But I also recognise the city of the tango (a dance she admits to struggling with, and which she never comes close to understanding), a friendly, chaotic, vibrant and exciting city where I have always felt immediately at home. Although I have rented an apartment and coped, as she did, with the electrical blackouts, the water that fails to come from the shower or refill toilets, the pickpockets, the dirt, the inability of airlines to get passenger and baggage to the same destination, and the general messiness of life in this sprawling metropolis, I have not lived there for any length of time and I have, inevitably, seen a different place. For example, I have always taken care to visit Buenos Aires in the spring and have avoided the horrors of the long, hot, humid summers. Ms France dwells a lot on weather, yet most of her descriptions are of the summer. Her memory of Buenos Aires is, in its way, as selective as mine.

Bad Times in Buenos Aires is one view of the city. Long After Midnight at the NinoBien (surely almost a definition of good times in Buenos Aires) is another book by a journalist who spent some time there and he (Brian Winter, if you want to buy a copy) describes a different city. Winter’s book is flawed and partial too. All books about Buenos Aires ultimately fail to capture the place. If I had to recommend just one it would be The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez. His Buenos Aires is a fictional city in which his hero moves about an almost magical capital, searching for an elusive tango singer. On one visit, we used it as a guidebook. To our astonishment, it took us to some amazing places, for in Buenos Aires, a work of fiction is as good a guide to the city as anything else.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Strangler Vine

Back to history and books this week, with a review of The Strangler Vine.

Published at the beginning of last year, The Strangler Vine has been extremely well received. It's on the shortlist for the Historical Writers' Association Debut Crown. I'm in the HWA, so I'm excited about this book.

It's set in India in 1837, earlier than my own Cawnpore or Paul Collard's Maharajah's General, but recognisably the same country. In fact, one of the pleasures of the book for me was to meet people I had read about in my own background research - notably the redoubtable Fanny Parks. MJ Carter is an academic historian and her knowledge of the period and its characters shines through the story. My only quibble was with the swearing: bad language is very culturally specific and the 21st-century obscenities of some of the characters did not quite carry conviction.

The Strangler Vine is not an academic book. It combines an old-fashioned adventure story with a convincing political thriller. Mountstuart, the poet, is missing and the Thugs are proving difficult to eliminate, despite the sterling efforts of Major Sleeman. The naive Lieutenant Avery is on a mission to rescue Mountstuart under the command of old India hand Blake, but Blake seems to have a mission of his own. Why is Mountstuart so important to the British? What is Sleeman hiding about the Thugs? And why has the Secret and Political Department chosen Avery for this mission?

Carter has peopled a dramatic plot with fully developed characters. While the heroes are heroic, they are, at the same time, fallible and the villains have their redeeming features. The prose is easy on the eye. Carter uses words with care and her descriptive passages carry you to 19th century India, whilst avoiding the breathless over-writing that this period encourages.

This is not a book that will change your life or make you a better person. I think that Carter has set out to do much the same as me: to entertain the reader for a few hours very pleasantly and, as a bonus, to give them some understanding of the practical and political realities of life in India under Company rule. The reason that she is up for the Debut Crown and I'm not is that (he says through gritted teeth) she does it better than me.

[Other books on British India are also available. They may not be quite as good as The Strangler Vine, but they're still worth your time and the pitiful amount of small change they cost to buy on Kindle.]

Thursday, 6 August 2015


Every so often, I like to post something here that’s a little bit different. So, after weeks of posts about wars in India and wars in France, let’s take some time off and go to the opera.

Last night OperaUpClose opened Carmen at Soho Theatre. Like so many shows nowadays, Carmen is opening with a run of "previews". I'm happy to judge the show on its opening preview, though, because it seemed a complete and polished performance. There was one point where an impressively pitched note from Flora McIntosh blew the filter out of one of the lamps, convincing me that she could easily break glasses if she wanted to, but otherwise I suspect that the main difference between seeing the show now and seeing it next week is that now is substantially cheaper.

I will admit straight away to being an OperaUpClose fan. Regular operatic productions put so much effort into using music and spectacle to make an immediate emotional impact and then the effect is almost completely destroyed by the distancing that comes from the proscenium arch, the orchestra pit and the social mores of the opera house. With OperaUpClose a tiny orchestra (here just a quartet whose magnificent efforts effectively translate Bizet’s score) sits to the side of the stage and performances are generally in fringe venues with no proscenium arch at all. The result is that you are both physically and emotionally closer to the singers. The productions also emphasise acting as well as singing and, despite the artificiality of opera as an art form, it is surprisingly easy to find yourself totally involved with the characters. There's no doubt, too, that the experience of watching something on bench seats in the Soho Theatre (or over a pub, which is where I first saw them) at £15 is inevitably different from the experience of a visit to the Royal Opera House. In the Soho Theatre, people have come to see the opera, rather than just for an evening out, and the production has to deliver without any help from the less than sumptuous surroundings.

Deliver it does. Robin Norton-Hale has attacked the libretto to come up with a harsher, earthier approach than most Carmens. The programme notes assure us that “this is not a love story”. No: it is a story of lust and obsession; power and control. The story, as with all OperaUpClose productions, is important. Not only do the singers act well, but they sing clearly. The opera is in English and almost every word is beautifully enunciated, making it easy to follow the action, even without the libretto. As an aside, it's worth mentioning that, containing the full libretto, the program is worth every penny of the £5 it is sold for.

Carmen is not presented as a young, conventionally pretty woman. Instead Flora McIntosh plays her as a woman who has been round the block a few times and enjoyed the ride. She brings a disturbing lithe sexuality to the role, easily entrancing a naïve José (Anthony Flaum). José’s descent from upright soldier, to young lover, to obsessive killer is convincingly played. Louisa Tee has the thankless task of making Michaëla into the girl any man would want to run from, her appallingly Pollyanna-ish approach to life easing José’s slip from the path of good intentions.

I'm never convinced by the toreador in Carmen. I always feel that Bizet felt that if he was writing a Spanish opera, it had to have a bullfighter in it. Richard Immergluck sings Escamillo’s part well, but still comes over as a contrived character. The clash between him and José as they fight over Carmen is convincing, but Escamillo is a bit-part, incidental to José’s obsession and Carmen’s fight to control her own life and destiny. In a way, this production makes him much less significant than the other singers in this cast of nine. The others, Carmen’s adopted family, are a tight unit, convincing as they drink, brawl, flirt and bicker. Escamillo is the outsider, the man whose presence finally brings the tension between Carmen and José to a head.

We all know the plot. It’s going to end in tears. Even so, it comes as a shock, the violence not at all stylised. Carmen’s end and José’s final descent into hell make a huge emotional impact.

I didn't mention the singing much, did I? That’s because the performers use the music in the service of the plot, rather than using the plot as a framework to show off their singing. For me, that’s the way it should be: the goal of opera is to highlight your emotions, not to showcase the fat lady’s technique. (Yes, Mozart fans, there are exceptions.) With the very best opera, the music is so good that you don’t even notice it. On this basis, OperaUpClose have produced a very good opera indeed.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

'The Maharajah's General' at the V&A

Having written my blog post about The Maharajah's General on Thursday, I was, by pure coincidence, at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Friday.

The V&A have a wonderful collection of exhibits from the time when The Maharajah's General (and Cawnpore) were written. The best known item is probably 'Tipoo's Tiger', a full-size model tiger with an organ inside which, when operated, produced sounds supposed to represent the cries of the dying soldier. Tipu Sultan, we can reasonably conclude, was no fan of the East India Company, whose soldiers killed him and looted the tiger in 1799.

The wealth of Tipu Sultan gave rise to the picture of Indian rulers living in the midst of massive displays of ostentatious luxury, such as Jack Lark sees in the Maharajah's palace. I think the tiger shows, though, that this wealth sometimes resulted in severe lapses of taste! At Saturday House, the Nana Sahib spent some of his money importing paintings from Europe which were hung randomly alongside portraits of himself. Outside of the grand State Rooms, European visitors often reported the homes of Indian rulers as shabby and dirty. By contrast, the State Rooms could be very grand indeed. Also at the V&A, you can see the throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first Sikh ruler of Punjab. It was made of gold in the first half of the 19th century and taken by the British when they annexed Punjab in 1849.

The State Rooms were designed to awe and many visitors returned to England with tales about the riches of the Indian rulers and the splendour of their palaces, as did Jack Lark.

The sword that Jack Lark is given in the story, richly ornamented with precious stones, is also no fantasy. This is from the treasury of Maharaja Holka, defeated at the Battle of Mehidpur in 1817. The stones are diamonds, emeralds and rubies.

If you're interested in India in the last days of East India Company rule, I strongly recommend a visit to the V&A. If you go before 11 October, you'll be able to see the stunning photographs of Captain Linnaeus Tripe, who documented India and Burma in photographs from 1852 to 1860. Unfortunately, I can't reproduce these on the blog, but you can see examples and read more about the exhibition HERE.