Easter Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the holiday ahead.

Concert

Easter Weekend at Aldeburgh Music, Suffolk IP17 1SP. 29-31 March

The Alderburgh is marking Benjamin Britten’s veneration of Purcell with a weekend of concerts. Providing a snapshot of a powerful musical bond, the concerts will variously delve into musical history, bringing it up-to-date with a present generation of performers and composers.

There are two concert performances of Purcell’s powerful opera, Dido and Aenas, set in Orford Church, while La Nuova Musica connects Purcell with his predecessor, John Blow. Featuring ensembles closely bound to the Aldeburgh, including a leading role for the young artist programme, the weekend is described as “a celebration of the patron saint of music and musicians whose feast day is Britten’s own birthday”.

 

Dance

Sutra, Sadler’s Wells. London, EC1R 4TN. 3-6 April

After touring the globe, showing to audiences as far-flung as New Zealand and Singapore, Sutra returns to Sadler’s Wells on Wednesday for its fifth anniversary. The collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Turner Prize-winning sculptor Antony Gormley and 17 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China has been described as "outstanding".

Polish composer Szymon Brzóska was specially commissioned to write the score, while Gormley’s set of 21 wooden boxes provides a striking backdrop for a unique artistic production which explores the philosophy and faith behind the Shaolin tradition.

 

Art

Nástio Mosquito: Nastia Answers Gabi. IKON gallery, Birmingham B1 2HS. Now-21 April

Following his appearance at the Tate Modern last November, artist, videographer, poet and provocateur Nástio Mosquito’s latest exhibition reflects on the nature of our globalised world, with particular reference to representations of Africa and post-colonial clichés.

A notoriously irreverent artist, his videos are knowingly politically-incorrect. He picks apart the philosophical language familiar to the art world in order to convey his philosophical scepticism about contemporary society. Including videos in which he talks to his female equivalent Nástia, as well as a short scene in which he answers questions from renowned curator Gabi Ngcobo, Mosquito uses humour to explore post-colonial clichés and expresses an urgent desire to engage with reality on all levels.

 

Theatre

Untold Stories. The Duchess Theatre, London WC2B 5LA. 22 March onwards

The National Theatre’s critically-acclaimed double bill, featuring two auto-biographical recollections by Alan Bennett, is now showing at the Duchess Theatre for a 12-week run.

Hymn, the first of the two plays, is a memoir of music and childhood, directed by Nadia Fall to music by George Fenton. A nostalgic piece, it brings together Bennett’s memories of concerts at Leeds Hall with stories of his father teaching him the violin.

Cocktail Sticks is directed by Nicholas Hytner and was first performed at the National Theatre last year. Described as "tender, touching and sad”, it is inspired by themes and conversations from Bennett’s memoir A Life Like Other People’s. Alex Jennings play Alan Bennett in both pieces.

 

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle. Soho Theatre. London. 3-20 April.

Nominated for ‘Best New Play’ at the Irish Theatre Awards and off the back of a hugely successful Edinburgh and Dublin run, The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle will be showing at the Soho Theatre throughout April. A play about a man who has barely lived enough to have regrets, critics have described it as “high accomplished” and a “marvellous production”. Written by Dublin-based playwright Ross Dungan and performed by eight Irish actors, this exciting new play is story-telling at its best.

 

Chinese shaolin monk performs in 'Sutra', a ballet by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, on July 8, 2008 in Avignon, southeastern France, as part of the 62nd Avignon international festival. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images
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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war