“I Was Hitler’s room-mate”. A haunting new novel examines complicity with evil


Days before his suicide, Hitler examines an architect’s model of his home city of Linz, rebuilt as a Nazi cultural capital

THE TRISTAN CHORD by Glenn Skwerer

“I was Hitler’s room mate.” It sounds like a nasty B-movie, doesn’t it? But for six months in Vienna in 1908, a young man called August Kubizek actually was. In fact, he had known Hitler for a couple of years by then. They had met as teenagers in the opera queue in Linz, their hometown, and become inseprable companions. Kubizek was under no illusions about his friend’s hang-ups – his endless, self-centred monologues about music, architecture and the potential of the arts to purify degenerate mankind, his almost complete inability to sustain normal relationships, his refusal to take part in any social activity that would expose his obsessions to a healthy scrutiny. He had seen Hitler’s devotion to his mother, and terrible grief at her death. As a frustrated musician himself, he could empathise with his friend’s discontents, his longing to transform the world. After Hitler persuaded his parents to allow him to try his luck at the Conservatoire in Vienna,  he was emotionally bound to him in a way he would never quite be able to define or explain.

Almost 40 years later, Kubizek found himself interred by American occupying forces, regularly pumped for information on his troubling past as the Hitlerjungenfreund (friend of the Führer’s youth). Eventually they released him and he wrote a book about it. This is the basis of Glenn Skwerer’s haunting novel.

Skwerer is up-front about his fictionalisation of Kubizek’s narrative. He gives him a different name, Eugen Reczek, and invents a relationship between Reczek and the cultured Jewish mother of one of his music students, which eventually drives Hitler out of his life. But never, quite, out of his dreams. That’s the most disturbing thing about the book. Not the exposure of the horrors of the concentration camps, Adolf’s disgusting obsessions and personal habits, or even that the two young men hooked up in the first place. Most of that is on record. There will be people who find it difficult to cope with the scene where Hitler, the devoted son, tenderly places ice on his dying mother’s tongue, when she is too sick to drink liquids. They won’t like to think of him having any redeeming qualities whatsoever. But as Skwerer points out in an Afterword, to make Hitler into a monster isn’t honest or wise. He was human. Deal with it.

It’s the quietly devastating final section of this book that really lingers in the mind. Reczek becomes a provincial official of the kind Hitler despised, his musical career derailed by the First World War. He hides away the watercolours that Hitler once painted for him and never mentions their friendship to his wife. Yet the allure remains. When Hitler becomes Chancellor, they resume contact. Unprompted, Hitler writes a huge cheque for the musical education of Reczek’s three sons.  He invites Reczek to Bayreauth to hear their adored Wagner as it should be performed, and Reczek is transfixed. His ecstatic love of the operas remains undimmed. And what of his love – if such it can be called – for the Führer himself?

The Americans chip away at his defences. Reczek tells them he was never political by nature. He only became a Nazi when it seemed rude not to. He secretly finds his interrogators a little vulgar, unable to appreciate the transformative power of great Germanic art. He suspects, at least until very late in the day, that reports of the death camps are Allied propaganda. Yes, Hitler was a bit weird. He made him very uncomfortable at times. But, you know,  Austrians greeted the Anschlüss with open arms. Well, except for the Jews of course. It was a pity about the Jews…

The payoff from all this is that by now we have identified with Reczek through his long first-person account. Who hasn’t known someone at uni who got into some weird stuff? Who became downright creepy? When do you raise the alarm? It’s not as if they all go on to murder six million people. Most of them grow out of it. Okay, his friend was a little odd. Well, very odd at times. But, you know, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Vienna in the old days. It wasn’t a nice place. How was he to know?

By now we’ve come to regard Reczek as a reliable narrator. We want to believe he’s okay, just a bit misguided. But at what point do we no longer trust him? When he lets the Nazi top brass fete him and offer him a job? When he never mentions his Jewish assistant’s disappearance? When he goes to Bayreauth and has the best week of his life? When he finds out that none of the family of his boyhood mistress survived the death camps? And that’s what makes the ending of the story so unsettling. Does he accept the truth, or simply make the necessary accommodation with reality?

And that is the tricky bit. For evil to triumph, good men must do nothing. What makes a good man? We may even be one of them ourselves. Faced with Hitler as a room-mate, when would we raise the alarm? And what if no-one listened?

Stephen Fry explains Wagner’s revolutionary “Tristan Chord” – video

The Tristan Chord is available now from Unbound for £24.00, or from Amazon for £12.50


The slight trippyness of Tresco

“It’s like the bloody Prisoner,” my hubby said one day, as a golf buggy whizzed past delivering luggage.


Flying Boat Holiday Cottages, Tresco

I was well into my twenties before I spent a night in a B&B. Hotels came later still. Boarding houses were part of my family history – my great-aunt ran one in Blackpool in the 1920s and 1930s. Growing up on the Fylde coast, I had a school friend who was squeezed into bunks in a garage all summer with her three siblings and then had 11 bedrooms to choose from in the winter months. All this came with the territory of a Blackpool childhood. Hotels, however, happened to other people.

There is something about staying in a hotel that makes you vulnerable, particularly if you aren’t the kind of person who does it regularly. I must have stayed in about 100 different ones by now and I can still be ambushed by a pang of homesickness when faced with a breakfast buffet. There is a feeling that your intimate life, your temporary retreat, is at the mercy of unknown and possibly untrustworthy human beings. I think it was this nagging anxiety that made watching Fawlty Towers unbearable for me for much of my adulthood.

It was a Twitter feed on Dominic Raab’s floundering launch of the first No Deal Brexit impact assessments that brought back memories of the seminal situation comedy. Suddenly an image filled my mind of Basil Fawlty pushing a frantic Manuel back through the baize door into a burning kitchen and exclaiming “No! There’s no fire!” Basil ends up having what appears to be a fit, writhing on the floor, unable to process the disconnect between reality and his claims that all is tickety-boo. It probably wouldn’t be acceptable to broadcast it now in case epileptics found it offensive. The best comedy is often both funny and tragic at the same time.

In that classic TV scene I saw a metaphor for the state of England at the moment. Surely if we shout loudly enough, people who don’t speak English will understand us? Surely an Englishman’s assertion is good enough to trump reality? And surely we English are so naturally superior that we have earned the right to be insufferably rude to people who challenge our version of the world?

“I’ve just discovered how funny Fawlty Towers is!” I told my husband as he came in to find me on Netflix. “I never knew!” Yet the very next night I had a disturbing dream about a chaotic hotel and woke up in precisely the state of anxiety that Basil Fawlty spends his life navigating. I needed to check out of my hotel room, I had a train to catch, but the management had removed all my clothes from the wardrobe and seemed to find it quite unreasonable for me to ask where they were. I was going to have to be assertive, perhaps even mention legal proceedings, and there was no escape. Is this, I wonder, a particularly English dilemma – the realisation that we are in the hands of imbeciles combined with the sense that, as guests in someone else’s house, it’s incumbent on us to be polite?

The scenario of finding yourself trapped in a bizarrely threatening place that appears benign on first sight is a horror movie cliché and the basis of the cult TV series, The Prisoner. The fact that everyone is being so polite and upbeat to Number 6, that he is somewhere that seems so pretty and pleasant, only adds to the sense of menace.

Recently, we spent a few days on the island of Tresco. It’s idyllic and almost totally car-free, the epitome of the old-fashioned Enid Blyton childhood where children can wander around safe and unsupervised all day. Being privately owned, it’s been able to create a very distinctive holiday experience. Everything is lovely, but lovely in exactly the same way. Every restaurant had a similar menu, right down to the font used, and an impeccably tasteful Farrow and Ball influenced coastal chic characterises every interior space. All the houses looked like holiday lets and most of them were. The standard of maintenance was impeccable. We didn’t see so much as an overflowing litter bin.

“It’s like the bloody Prisoner,” my hubby said one day, as a golf buggy whizzed past delivering luggage. I described it to my daughter on the phone. “You’d better make sure your room’s not bugged,” she said.  A place where there’s only one employer and housing is in their gift does have a slightly Big Brother feeling to it. I didn’t laugh when she said that.

Before long a scenario was developing in my mind – what if we were trapped on Tresco, a place where we did not belong? I felt that we would be found out, that it would be branded on our foreheads that we were not the right sort of people to be there. But surely, if that happened, we’d have to leave? Round and round the two insecurities went, feeding off one another. Getting over to the neighbouring island of Bryher was a huge relief and I realised how strongly I felt that Tresco had seceded from the rest of the Isles of Scilly, which already have a somewhat tenuous connection to reality for most of us.

If travel broadens the mind, then tourism might be said to do the opposite, by creating spaces where exoticism is tempered by reassuring familiarity. The succulents growing out of stone walls might be unusual but the people are all too familiar, at least if you come from West Dulwich. People pay a lot of money to be left in peace and feel safe on Tresco. I am sure that some of them lead stressful and very public lives for the rest of the year. They are affable and charming, if a little loud and entitled in company; the dads are trying incredibly hard to connect with the children and spend quality time with them. The mothers sometimes look zoned out. There are often three generations around the table, a delightful state of affairs unless one of them pays the timeshare bills and expects you to come back every year when you quite fancied Lanzarote for a change.

The best cure for the slight anxiety which smart tourist destinations provoke in me is to be born with the sense of entitlement that characterises the British upper class. They run everything, they own most of it, and they go on holiday to places where that assumption will not be challenged in any way. That is their prerogative and they can afford it. They are awfully nice, and so is Tresco, and it seems churlish to complain. Nobody said we had to come.

But I can’t help feeling, as I return home to Twitter and the continuing unfolding car-crash of Brexit, that there is a fire burning behind the green baize door, and that the rest of us will have to figure out what to do about it while the people who threw the match into the kitchen arrange their island boltholes and vanish. They can check out any time, but we can never leave.

Walking out of homelessness – a challenging new take on the SW Coast Path

salt path.png

We were regularly asked: “How come you have enough time to walk so far?” When we told the truth, children were held closer, dogs retracted on leads, doors were closed and conversations ended very quickly.

Raynor Winn

It is hard to imagine a more desperate situation than the one faced by Raynor Winn and her husband Moth than the one they find themselves in at the start of this remarkable memoir. Huddled in their Welsh farmhouse, hiding from the bailiffs after a long court battle goes against them, they are not only homeless and almost penniless but reeling from a recent diagnosis that Moth is terminally ill.

What would you do? Probably, particularly in view of medical advice, you wouldn’t decide, almost on a whim, to walk the Britain’s most demanding long-distance footpath, backpacking and living on less than £40 a week. Yet that seemed preferable to sofa-surfing and waiting years for an elusive council house and a new life.

So off they went. Now I know from bitter experience that even in short managable sections, using a luggage transfer service and sleeping in comfortable B&B s every night, this is no small undertaking. On paper, their decision borders on lunacy, or at least irresponsibility. Yet off they went. Cue for the usual discussions of burning thighs, agonising blisters and pitching camp in all weathers.

Coast path odysseys are becoming a genre in their own right. They tend to either focus, with various degrees of jokiness, on the considerable physical hardships, or more lyrically on the way plodding along this narrow strip of land at England’s edge changes you. And Raynor Winn does both. The path does change them. It gives them purpose, hope, a connection to the natural world, and, surprisingly, a dramatic improvement in Moth’s health prognosis.

When you have no obvious future, sometimes the best thing to do is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It really is that simple. And in the end, in a scene that would have the most hard-hearted reader punching the air, it pays off. There’s a gloriously hard-won happy ending. But this is not an easy read. It’s a penetrating look at social exclusion. The Winns soon find out that one story – that of the early retirees selling their house, sticking the money in the bank and hitting the open road, brings affirmation and respect. But the reality, that they are homeless and haven’t a clue what else to do with themselves, rapidly ends a conversation.

Living in Manchester, averting my eyes from figures slumped in doorways is no novelty to me. I live with it by dehumanising them, choosing to assume that they got their through some weakness of character or combination of circumstances unimaginable to me. But The Salt Path makes you realise what it’s like when people recoil from you because you haven’t been able to shower for days, when you press your nose up hungrily against the windows of cafés and are asked to move on because you’re putting the customers off their pasties, and when you have to climb sea cliffs on a diet of dried noodles for days on end.

The rural idyll of the West Country has a dark side of deprivation and desperation that the tourists rarely see. In woodland hollows, people priced out of the housing market camp out. In pretty villages, scratch the surface and you will find the mentally ill, the drifting and the addicted. Most of us imagine homelessness in an urban setting. But in a recent Big Issue article, Rayner Winn claims that she and Moth were far from alone in taking to long-term backpacking to give them a much needed sense of purpose when faced with crisis.

So read this book if you love hiking, the West Country, the natural world, tales of unexpected human kindnesses and hope found in unlikely places. But don’t read it to escape. The Coast Path tests you to the limit. I can say that from hard-won personal experience. And like any pilgrimage, if fully embraced, it will introduce you to unexpected encounters, broaden your outlook and challenge your prejudices.

The Salt Path – Penguin Books


Volunteer burnout and mental health – the ugly truth

By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.


Until today I’ve avoided the subject of my library job coming to a rather messy end last October on this blog. Partly because I wanted to move on and not call out any of the people involved while feelings were still raw. It’s a bit undignified and I’m still not sure if I will be returning to that kind of work one day, so I was reluctant to burn my bridges.

What has made me reconsider is that this is Mental Health Awareness Week and a number of people have shared similar experiences on social media. Most of them have felt isolated and inadequate for being unable to cope with the unrelenting and unsustainable pressures of a job in the public sector in the current climate. Several have said that the thing they have found most helpful was others sharing their experiences.

I agree – this culture of grin and bear it is helping nobody. I suspect that the longer people like us go on trying to live up to ever-increasing expectations and growing workloads, the longer the present dire state of affairs in public services will continue. I can only speak for education. In the course of 15 months or so I went from 5 hours a week looking after one small school library (200 pupils) to three schools, three different sites, and over 1,000 children, plus well over 100 members of staff, having needs I was valiantly attempting to meet, officially in 16.5 paid hours a week, but in reality a full-time job and then some.

Some of this pressure was self-inflicted. I find it hard to say no and when my school became an Academy Trust it seemed like a great opportunity to roll out what had been a successful modus operandi elsewhere. I remain very proud of the three school libraries I either opened or revived, and the fact that they created at least one job other than my own. But I soon found myself trying to do a challenging job that I had absolutely no qualifications for, in a difficult environment where there was continual pressure on resources – financial, physical and human. Sadly, the bright era of co-operation between the three schools didn’t quite materialise, and I found myself in a situation where I was constantly suspected of having divided loyalties and vital information was undoubtedly withheld from me at times.

I think many of my difficulties stemmed from the fact that I was initially a parent-turned-volunteer who hung around and was eventually absorbed onto the payroll. Many colleagues appreciated what I was trying to achieve and the support I did my best to give to them. But I never quite felt I was one of the team. There were people who were only too ready to mention my lack of professional librarianship and teaching qualifications, though the Trust would never have been able to resource someone in the role who’d had them, and I left with nearly 20 years of experience under my belt. I probably had also developed a tunnel vision about the job which made it difficult for me to regard it rationally. I was always late, always fire-fighting, always putting on my best face for another class of lively 7 year olds, and always terrified that one day something would snap and I would be unreasonable or even unkind to one of those children I so very much wanted to inspire and help.

It took me a long time to realise how unwell I was. In fact, it wasn’t until I realised I was seriously contemplating throwing myself in front of a train rather than go to work the next morning. I won’t go into the gory details here. Some things could have been better handled, but nobody had the time to poke something that appeared on the surface to be working. My collapse surprised a lot of people and some were lovely and supportive. But I was asked to come into work three or four times after being signed off sick with severe depression to show other people how to do my job, and watch them struggling with things I could have done easily had I been fit and well. That did nothing to help my recovery.

It seemed for a while as if I would be able to return part-time to one of the schools where I had built up contacts, and a library service I was proud of and devoted to. In fact, once mental illness came into the conversation, I wasn’t even allowed to go into the building  to collect my things and say goodbye. Even bankers at Lehmann Bros got that. In education, the spectre of child protection always haunts you. I am sure the manager involved was trying to be professional but when you are already suicidally depressed and so stressed you are suffering from dissociative episodes and unable to drive safely, it’s hardly motivating to be treated as a potential threat to children’s wellbeing and told that you will need constant supervision should you have the temerity to come back into work. At the time, I wasn’t up to the job. But with better handling I could have been, and even an hour a week covering books would have done wonders for my self-esteem.

All that happened last October and I’m still not completely well. My medication has been increased and I spend my days gardening, working out, learning new things (my watercolours are coming along) and feeling useless and guilty. I am deliberately cautious about the time I spend on social media because I hear about so many people in desperate need and feel I am privileged and self-indulgent not to be out there helping them. Yes, I’ve done my bit, but I failed, I messed up big-time and feeling that I might never be able to handle a responsible job again is a hard thing to come to terms with. At 59, I don’t quite feel ready to retire. But it may be forced upon me.

What would I say to others in my shoes? Don’t promise to do a job people should be paying you to do. In libraries these days it’s happening all the time. And it’s wrong. It’s exploitative and in the end it doesn’t make things better long-term. Professional jobs need to be done by people who have the status, experience and training to do them and are paid accordingly. If you ignore these stark realities, and many decent people will, you will eventually burn yourself out and the resources to pick up the pieces may not be there. Even for professionals they are thin on the ground. And if you must say yes, do your utmost to surround yourself with people you trust who will have your back and fight your corner. Many genuinely intend to do so when you start, but such are the pressures on them that they will take the line of least resistance when you need them to say unpopular things, and ultimately throw you under a bus if that is the only way they can see to ensure that the show goes on. I do not say that in bitterness. I was bullied at work and did not speak out when I should have done. By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.

That is probably enough for now. But if you are one of those burnt-out professionals sitting at home right now, there are two things to remember. You are not useless. And you are not alone.


“Not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.” Getting stuff done in “This House”

How far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action?

That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other….We are not built for co-operation.

As Teresa May brokers another messy compromise in her attempt to quell the ever-shriller voices of thwarted Brexiteers and hold the Conservative Party together, it is tempting to regard these days as the most febrile and chaotic in British political memory. My husband always has an answer to that, “It was worse in the 1970s, they were wheeling MPs in on their death beds to vote then.”

James Graham’s whip-smart play, This House takes us right inside those turbulent times, when Labour would stop at nothing to defend their minute majority, when political life was dominated by deals and counter-deals with minority parties and rebels were begged to put personal idealism aside and toe the party line. It is astonishing that the final Callaghan Labour Government hung on for four-and-a-half years before losing a no-confidence motion by a single vote. Poised between a musical, a tragedy and a farce, it almost seems too entertaining, but there is a grim hilarity as the bodies, quite literally, pile up.

Westminster is a notoriously adversarial place. Probably the thing everyone remembers from a tour of the Palace is that on the Commons floor the Government and Opposition benches are separated by a gap precisely the width of two drawn swords. Incipient violence is contained by a web of arcane custom and gentlemen’s agreements. For example, when an MP is unavoidably absent for a forthcoming division, he can request a “pair” – that is, a member of the opposing party agrees not to vote. Most of these arrangements have grown up through custom and practice and can only survive if everyone follows their unwritten rules. It seems to work, most of the time. When it doesn’t, you get Heseltine waving the Mace around in fury and all hell breaks loose – perhaps gentlemen’s agreements matter more than we like to think.

The engine rooms of politics, particularly in a minority or hung Parliament, are the Whips’ Offices where individual convictions are hammered into party unity, superficially at least. Graham takes us deep into these hidden but vital centres of power. Often Labour and Tory whips face one another across the stage. And as the exhausting compromises wear on, the brutality of class warfare becomes more and more apparent.

James Graham writes brilliantly about the last days of Old Labour (and indeed Old Conservatives). This House shows us a collapsing political order on the cusp of seismic change, as the Conservatives back Thatcher as their leader and Labour rely on ageing Trade Unionists, who command loyalty and respect but are physically drained by years of manual labour and hours in smoke-filled rooms. It is truly shocking to see such giants staggering in to vote, one in a blood-stained shirt just hours after surgery, another in a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder. It is also extremely funny, though at times one feels guilty for laughing.

Several decades later, the haircuts and the music are different but a great deal remains the same. What I took away from this fascinating story was a reminder that, despite all, MPs are human beings, and there is an unexpected and moving gesture of fellow feeling between Chief Whip Walter Harrison and his Conservative opposite number, Jack Weatherill, at the very end. The final question is, how far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action? That argument is still continuing as the House limps toward an ominous new world order.

This House is currently on tour. I saw it last week at The Lowry, Salford Quays


Weirdly Normal – The City and the City

The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?


David Morrissey stars in The City and the City (BBC)

Borders are a mundane daily reality for millions, yet retain a sense of deep weirdness. It’s a paradox pushed to extremes in  The City and the City, now a BBC TV serial starring David Morrissey.

China Miéville’s dystopian fantasy – if such it is – reads like a rather dull police procedural, until the final lines of the first chapter when the protagonist notices and then “unsees” what appears to be a perfectly ordinary elderly woman. It’s the first indication that normal rules don’t apply in Besźel, the down-at-heel, vaguely Eastern European city where he lives. Gradually we piece together what appears to be impossible. The city has a twin, Ul Qoma, occupying exactly the same geographical space. But nobody is allowed to acknowledge this. Inhabitants are conditioned from birth to deliberately avoid seeing it, as are their opposite numbers across the boundary. It is a brutally enforced, State-sponsored act of mass hallucination.

Okay, we think, this is weird. We are in for a wild ride here. But the more we think about it, the more parallels with everyday normality seem to appear. We play along, expecting things to become trippier, or at least to get some explanation of how this extraordinary situation developed. Yet the tone of the narrative remains defiantly mundane. Our guide, the taciturn Inspector Tyador Borlú, doesn’t bat an eyelid as he describes the day to day reality of living in a place where you walk down a street navigating around people from another city whose presence you could be locked up for acknowledging, and (a particularly haunting example) he feels a frisson of unease when he notices a familiar street of crumbling buildings reflecting back light from the glass and steel skyscrapers of its unacknowledged neighbour. The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?

The best fantasy, like the best satire, knows it is best not to exaggerate too much. A grounded, intricately described world that differs from our own in just one or two respects, perhaps simply in a matter of intensity or degree, is often the scariest and most intriguing. After a while the reader starts to accept its normality and even make comparisons with life in what we collectively call, “the real world.” In fact, the real world is full of borders. Some look very odd on a map, such as the shape of Norway or Chile, but make perfect sense when natural topography is taken into account. Others appear utterly arbitrary, but developed as the least-worst solution to decades of lethal and bitter conflict that could flare up again if anyone poked the hornets’  nest. And such arbitrariness may, with the passage of time, create its own self-reinforcing visible divisions. Many years of malnutrition has left the citizens of North Korea stunted, several inches shorter than their neighbours in the South. Economic gulfs open up between adjoining communities, apparently trapping one in a technological or social time warp. Languages that were once similar become mutually unintelligible.

But borders retain their fascination, particularly ones that run directly through human communities that once were united. They remain the subtext of every unspoken, carefully navigated conversation. What seems like an absurdist joke – a house with the front door in Northern Ireland and the back door in the ROI, can quickly turn nasty. A few years ago I visited Cyprus. It was, in every obvious respect, a relaxing trip. Except I never really did relax. I couldn’t stop thinking about the place’s tragic history, the community just a few miles away that might as well be on another world. The ruined luxury tourist hotels of Greek-speaking Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta locked up and left to rot since 1974 while tourists sunbathe just yards away, has haunted me ever since.

Mieville loves to write about cities, and they don’t have to be formally politically divided to be shaped by invisible boundaries. One of the first things you learn when you visit an unfamiliar conurbation is where the no-go areas are. Cross a street, and suddenly you feel unsafe. People look at you in a different way – or are you imagining it? Your language, gestures, maybe even your clothing, mark you out as suspect. And the barriers imposed by social inequalities, even in a theoretically stable state, can be surreal. Ordinary Londoners crammed into substandard, overpriced flats walk daily past billboards depicting sterile, idealised communities of unaffordable and often empty apartments. Don’t think about it too hard, it’ll do your head in. Keep your head down, head for the tube, don’t dwell on the body on the pavement inside the sleeping bag.

In the trope-driven Hollywood narrative, there is always a band of brave rebels fighting against segregation, borders, state-imposed realities. But what if we need borders? What if the fearsome secret police were the good guys, keeping us safe? Is that really so weird? UN peacekeepers, in Cyprus and elsewhere, are armed. And which is preferable – a peaceful, stable society where the vast majority of people just want to keep their heads down and carry on undisturbed by local ethnic tensions, or one where people think and speak freely and they flare up into dangerous conflict?

Our daily reality is composed of the world view we sign up to, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes imposed by brutal State repression, more frequently by unspoken mutual consent. All that Miéville does in The City and The City is to dial up the tension and the absurdist level a notch or two. It makes for a challenging read.

canary wharf

Contrasting skylines at Canary Wharf, London (The Guardian)

Country House Shakespeare – Twelfth Night at the RST

Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn?


Dinita Gohil, left, as Viola and Kara Tointon as the besotted Olivia in the RSC’s new Twelfth Night – MANUEL HARLAN

And so to Stratford-upon-Avon, for the third time in six months, to see the last performance of the RSC’s Twelfth Night. I have very happy memories of Stratford in general, where I did an MA in Shakespeare and Theatre Studies, and in particular of the RSC’s 2014 productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, which were set either side of the First World War. It was a period setting that brought out new layers of meaning in both the plays, further enhanced by Christopher Luscombe’s sumptuous country house setting and Nigel Hess’s joyous musical pastiche of Edwardian pomp and circumstance giving way to the Jazz Age.

Quite rightly, it packed the house out for weeks and so it was natural enough that the RSC ordered more of the same for Twelfth Night, this time setting it rather arbitrarily in the 1890s and packing it with a pianola, an Indian Sebastian and Caesario, a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan numbers and rather a lot of Oscar Wilde, green carnation stuff. All this was sumptuously recreated at great expense; Olivia’s gowns alone must have set the RSC back thousands, and there was even a scene in a London railway terminal.

Twelfth Night is a broad church (although if you make it too contemporary there’s some highly questionable treatment of mental illness). It can stand a lot in the way of updating, particularly when it’s as beautifully produced and performed as this, but there was a whiff of opportunism about the amount of late Victoriana we were being subjected to here. Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn? In the setting of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is itself festooned with bunting and restaurants offering cream teas as Mad Men era music plays in the background, it did rather come over that way. I’m surprised that the normally commercially savvy National Trust hasn’t co-funded this production, since it takes a local property as a design reference (the wonderful Arts-and-Crafts house Wightwick Manor).

Stratford, at least the Shakespearian bit, is a living temple to Englishness as it is generally viewed by the rest of the world. The Chinese pound is doing a great deal to keep it in business these days, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the local Council to lay on basic Mandarin courses for hospitality and retail workers. I saw the Birthplace Gift Shop lose a substantial sale because a lady was unable to understand a request to enter her PIN number. I remember from my MA days that on the late-evening train back to Birmingham you were as likely to hear Polish spoken as you were English. I noticed a lot of businesses advertising for staff.

Post Referendum, I’m inclined to take a rather jaded view of all this chintzy Englishness. The RSC offer a varied programme, and everything they do is first-class, so it would be churlish to complain about them offering the occasional crowd-pleaser. But if I have to sit through one more production featuring a pert scullery maid bobbing to her betters in a mob cap, I’ll start missing Maggie Smith. Christopher Eccleston is up next as Macbeth. Given his forthright views on social class when pressed on the reasons why he quit Doctor Who, I can’t help wondering what he made of Twelfth Night. There are some terrific Shakespearian insults in it.