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A Potter's Moll: Wordy Henry

...The audience watching the local Thespians perform an adaptation of ‘Washington Square’ by Henry James, a play called ‘The Heiress’, included groups of people who were probably supporting family members or colleagues who were in the cast. A young lady was quietly asked to turn off her phone, which lit up every few minutes as she checked her text messages. A few minutes later she sighed heavily and whispered loudly: ‘I wish I’d brought my I-pod.’...

The inimitable Liz Robison sums up a shallow mind in two paragraphs.

Liz wrote this column in memory of and with respect to Joyce Hinchliffe who died on October 20th. “A great lady,’’ says Liz. Joyce contributed words and pictures to Open Writing.

I have just finished reading an elegiac historical novel by Jack Hidson, set after the First World War on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. It tells of the trials and tribulations of families who tried to farm land ‘given’ to them by the government in a Land Resettlement Act by which soldiers returning from fighting in the trenches in France were supposedly rewarded for their service. It turned out that the land had previously been forest that had been logged and so the land was covered in huge tree trunks that had to be removed by using explosives.

The book is not only a moving account of the struggle people had but contains the most graphic account of trench warfare, told in flashbacks, that I have read since I first came across the work of Wilfred Owen in the 1960s. It is always interesting finding out about something historical that you previously knew nothing about: I read another novel a few years ago called ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’, set in Tasmania after the Second World War, where immigrants from places on the Adriatic took jobs that no one else wanted in remote mining and logging areas.

By coincidence the friend who lent me the book, our host in Vancouver this summer, came to visit for a few days this week, and we enjoyed the conviviality of eating and drinking together.

We are lucky here in Huddersfield to have the Lawrence Batley Theatre, which presents a varied programme of plays, musicals, jazz and comedy, both professional and amateur. (Though my one complaint is that I think LBT stands for Late Beginning Theatre!) A couple of weeks ago we saw the local Thespians perform an adaptation of ‘Washington Square’ by Henry James, called ‘The Heiress’. It was a creditable performance: you genuinely did not know whether the unsuitable suitor just wanted the heiress for her money or not. Any feeling of it dragging on a bit was, I think, Henry James’s fault rather than the Thespians: I think he must be one of the most prolix writers ever.

The audience that night included groups of people who were probably supporting family members or colleagues who were in the cast. A young lady behind us was quietly asked to turn off her phone, which lit up every few minutes as she checked her text messages. A few minutes later she sighed heavily and whispered loudly: ‘I wish I’d brought my I-pod.’

Last night we saw a production of Simon Armitage’s new translation of the medieval strand of the Arthurian legend, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ by New Perspectives Theatre Company. Four actors produced a rich and entertaining show, very faithful to Armitage’s lively, northern, alliterative translation, using some puppetry and clever but simple scenery and props. There were lots of school kids there as I think the company had probably done some workshops in local schools. The actors were chatting to the kids before the performance and I thought what a marvellous idea it was to get kids into the theatre at a young age.

I read a fascinating article in the paper by Andrew Davies who has written the script for the BBC’s forthcoming series of Charles Dickens’s ‘Little Dorrit’. He describes the task of condensing nine hundred pages into eight hours of performance: for instance he decided to bring the main character in right at the beginning to establish her for the audience. In the novel she appears several chapters in and chapter one takes place in a prison in Marseilles. Davies described attending the read- through with all seventy- five characters present (there are ninety in the book) and told about how Tom Courtney (Little Dorrit’s father) lifted everybody’s performance by the generosity of his own. Alun Armstrong and Sue Johnston are two of my other favourites among the cast. This is going to be a treat for the next few weeks, as ‘Bleak House’ was a couple of years ago. I reread the latter as it was being shown, having taught it to A-level students was back in the sixties. That inspired me to tackle another Dickens, so I chose ‘Dombey and Son’, which amongst other things presents a marvellous evocation of the huge disruption to towns and countryside caused by the coming of the railways.

I have started reading ‘Little Dorrit’ in advance of the series starting on TV, and am reminded once again of Dickens’s genius for names: Sir Tite Barnacle is high up in the government Department of Circumlocution, and he married into the Stiltstalker family.

Many years ago I inherited a complete set of Dickens’s works from an uncle who had bought them as a young man, one at a time as he could afford them, and read them all. (There is often a remnant of cigarette ash in the cease between the pages.) Many of the books have illustrations by ‘Phiz’ which are very illuminating when studied with a magnifying glass.

There is news today that Alan Bennet has decided to leave the archive of his work to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, in recognition of the fact that learning at Oxford University was a pivotal experience that helped to make him the man of letters he is. He also said that the state gave him every bit of his education free, and I feel exactly the same: no tuition fees and a full grant because my parents’ income was slight. We did not start our working lives burdened with debt as the poor students of today do, but on the other hand we did not have the vast amount of ‘gear’ they seem to have to have today.

More from me in a fortnight.

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