Playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) embracing actor Jack McGowan at a first night performance, 1970. Photo: Getty
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Mark Lawson: Happy days in the town of Samuel Beckett’s childhood

For the past three years, an international Beckett festival in Enniskillen has attempted to establish a more positive Google footprint alongside the one established by the IRA bombing at the town’s cenotaph in 1987.

The three most obvious locations for a festival devoted to Samuel Beckett (1906-89) would be Dublin (his birthplace), Paris (where he lived for most of his adult life) and Nowhere, which is broadly the setting for plays such as Waiting for Godot and Happy Days. However, the writer attended Portora Royal School in the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen and, for the past three years, an international Beckett festival there has attempted to establish a more positive Google footprint alongside the one established by the IRA bombing massacre at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day in 1987.

The Nobel Prize-winner’s ghost might be bemused by barbershops offering “Beckett haircuts” – a tight crop, ideally steel-grey – but he would surely have enjoyed a rare ironic and allusive use of the words “Happy Days” on the front of a tourist brochure. And the festival, directed by Sean Doran, a former artistic director of English National Opera, attends inventively to his legacy, with the addition of some new elements – an imported international star, an irregular venue – to work that is likely to be familiar to the target clientele.

This year, Klaus Maria Brandauer made his Irish stage debut in Krapp’s Last Tape. His use of a German text (with English surtitles) had the effect, for an anglophone audience, of directing attention away from the two sets of words – the 69-year-old Krapp in his den, listening to a diary he recorded as a love-struck young man – and towards Beckett’s vivid visual sense, emphasised by Brandauer’s startling, clown-like appearance, with wings of fly­away hair, a swollen drinker’s nose and oversize boots.

My initial reaction was that the actor had sartorially elided Krapp with the dress sense of the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot but a later check of the text revealed that he was dressed exactly as specified: perhaps a sensible precaution, as the author’s nephew and executor, Edward Beckett, was in town and the estate has been known to block productions that subvert the words even slightly.

Brandauer also makes the greatest verbal distinction I have heard between the older voice – a high, second-childhood whine – and the strutting younger one. Under the direction of Peter Stein, this was probably the most surprising revelation to come out of Northern Ireland since Rory McIlroy.

The minimalism of late Beckett necessitates some cunning extension of running times. The hour allocated to the world premiere of the English-language version of Catastrophe included a mystery coach tour, winding high through the hills of County Fermanagh, passing through villages where Union flags were punctuated by Irish tricolours. A local told me that Israeli and Palestinian flags have also been flown, the loyalist and republican communities respectively siding with what they see as tribes whose plight echoes their own.

Eventually we arrived at Pubble Church, a disused place of worship dating back more than 1,000 years. On the abandoned altar, a cast under the direction of the Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar (best known, perhaps, for Line of Duty) played the slight but resonant Catastrophe, which involves the final touches to a human sculpture.

As The Complete Dramatic Works contains only 32 pieces, some barely a minute long, a festival entirely dedicated to Beckett would soon run out of material, so Doran has broadened the programme with works such as Roaratorio, a sound-and-dance piece by John Cage and Merce Cunningham, which was suggested by Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book also echoed in Beckett.

In future years, I would like to see some exploration of Beckett’s perhaps surprising level of influence on British TV sitcoms. The writer David Renwick has acknowledged that the dramatist was an inspiration for the fascination with the boredom of daily existence that underlies One Foot in the Grave and specifically for an episode in which Victor Meldrew is, like Winnie in Happy Days, buried up to his neck.

Happy Days is also the name of the American TV comedy series but that title is non-ironic and can’t be attributed to the former Enniskillen student.

 

Quick suffix

Reports on both the Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and the so-called Trojan Horse plot to impose hardline Muslim teaching in Birmingham schools have featured much use of the word “Islamist” to describe the ideology of the agitators. The term suggests that their behaviour and beliefs are a perversion of the Islamic faith.

Linguistically, though, the usage seems confused. A Marxist is someone who follows the teachings of Marx and a feminist believes in female equality but an Islamist is someone who has deviated from Islam.

What the linguistic police mean is “Islam-ish” but that sounds comically reductive, recalling Jonathan Miller’s joke about being “Jew-ish”. However, the problems of avoiding offence were shown when a BBC reporter recently referred to “Islamist fundamentalists”, a construction in which the same suffix is employed to suggest that they aren’t the former but are the latter. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.