A special offer for New Statesman readers

Mondrian | Nicholson: In Parallel and The Pitmen Painters.

MONDRIAN || NICHOLSON: IN PARALLEL and The Pitmen Painters for £28.50!

***** Evening Standard
***** Daily Express
***** Mail on Sunday
***** Sunday Express
Winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best New Play

"A wonderful piece of theatre: comic, sad and stirring in the same breath"
Financial Times

Presented by Bill Kenwright, following celebrated seasons at the National Theatre and on Broadway, Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters is currently enjoying a West End season, following a summer national tour.

Written by Lee Hall, creator of the worldwide sensation Billy Elliot, The Pitmen Painters has received huge critical acclaim and won the Evening Standard award for Best New Play.

In 1934, a group of Ashington miners hired a professor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favour of practice, the pitmen began to paint - prolifically. Within a few years avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collectors; but every day they continued to work, as before, down the mine. The Pitmen Painters is highly amusing, deeply moving and always entertaining as it examines the lives of a group of ordinary men who do extraordinary things.

"Mondrian | Nicholson: In Parallel" explores the largely untold creative relationship between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson during the 1930s. At the time the two artists were leading forces of abstract art in Europe. Their friendship culminated with Mondrian moving to London in 1938, at Nicholson's invitation, where the two worked in neighbouring Hampstead studios at the centre of a vibrant international community of avant-garde artists. This is a unique opportunity to experience some of the greatest works ever produced by these two exceptional artists.

Package deal includes top price ticket to The Pitmen Painters (normally £49.50) and admission to the Mondrian | Nicholson: In Parallel exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery saving £27.00.

For more information and to book tickets visit www.LOVEtheatre.com/Pitmen or call 020 7907 7000.

The Pitmen Painters
Written by Lee Hall
Inspired by a book by William Feaver
Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2

"Mondrian | Nicholson: In Parallel", until 20 May, www.courtauld.ac.uk/mondrian, Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London WC2

Terms and conditions apply. Package includes a top ticket to The Pitmen Painters and admission to the Mondrian/Ben Nicholson exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. Offer is valid on all Monday-Friday performances until 6 April 2012. Subject to availability. Offer cannot be used retrospectively or in conjunction with any other discounts. A booking fee of £1.95 applies when booking by phone.

Read the New Statesman's review of Mondrian | Nicholson: In Parallel here.

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496