Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Edinburgh Festival 2017

Last month I achieved a lifetime’s ambition, courtesy of my daughter Lynda’s initiative.  This was to attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  What clinched the deal was that the 2017 jamboree in Scotland’s beautiful capital city marked the 70th anniversary of this event, the world’s biggest arts festival.

The night before I flew to Scotland, Jack Whitehall presented a television documentary programme[i] about the origin and history of the Edinburgh Festival.  
With the assistance of old film footage and photographs, he was able to illustrate that its inaugural aims in 1947 were to lift spirits and bring people together after World War 2.   
In the more prosaic official version, the stated intention was to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.”

The TV documentary also outlined the risks involved.  These included the organisation of a cultural extravaganza at a time of hardship, its location in a conservative place, and in a city which had no facilities like an opera house and no gallery of modern art.

The idea of going to Edinburgh in August had originally been planted in my head as long ago as 1971.  A group of us had produced a successful late night student Revue as part of the Belfast’s Queens University Arts Festival.  Some people suggested that we should take it to Edinburgh.  
We demurred, unfortunately in retrospect, and Scotland was spared having to watch our satirical side-swipes at Northern Ireland’s politics and student life.

A decade later when a different group of us established an arts festival in our home town of Omagh, we talked about travelling to Edinburgh to scout for talent. 
The idea behind an exploratory visit was prompted by the knowledge that several of our best acts had made their name at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  Alas, limp excuses to do with family life and various irrelevant commitments deprived the Scots of our mercenary intentions.
Unintentionally, our objectives in establishing an arts festival chimed with those of Edinburgh - bringing people together and demonstrating that, despite the Troubles, creativity is what matters.  
Unknown to us at the time and also like Edinburgh when it was starting, we didn't allow a lack of dedicated arts venues to stifle our ambition.

Stepping off the train from Glasgow on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, our first engagement was not an arts event.   
Based on a recommendation from the esteemed editor of “Exploring Retirement” magazine, we headed straight for afternoon tea in the heart of the Old Town.  Located on the Royal Mile, the Signet Library at the Colonnades[ii] is as posh as its name sounds, a long-established and still functioning library which doubles up cleverly as a tea shop. 

As if to emphasise its exclusivity, the caterers operate under a warrant from the Queen.

We would need the calorific fuel to sustain the first of two day’s hunger for culture, not to mention queuing and walking to disparate venues.   
All but one of the 6 events we attended (including the Colonnades visit) had been booked on-line in advance.   
It also transpired that no two consecutive events were in the same venue, or even nearby, meaning plenty of walking back and forth.  The compensation is that Edinburgh is a stimulating and handsome place to discover on foot.

The scale of this festival is best understood by witnessing it at first hand.   
So much is happening at the Edinburgh Fringe that the programme brochure is fatter than the telephone directory for metropolitan area of Belfast, home to half a million people.  
When we were queuing for events in large buildings like the Assembly Rooms or the Gilded Balloon, we could see other lines of people waiting at different doors to get into other events taking place at the same time as ours but in other rooms; and outside the building there were lists of later events in each of these different rooms, approximately one every 90 minutes for each and every room.   
The director of the Edinburgh Fringe must be a juggler, someone with exceptional skills of organisation.

It’s no wonder that Edinburgh in August resembles Hong Kong or Barcelona with people bumping into each other in a quest to leave one performance and find their way to the next show.  En route, it is impossible to miss the street performers who, this year, numbered 1,200.  
The official figures tell the story. Take a deep breath as I avoid using words like mind-boggling, unbelievable, staggering, phenomenal and, the one I loathe most, awesome.
This year's Edinburgh Festival fringe presented 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues.

Impressive as these figures are, the spirit of festive energy generated in Edinburgh is infectious and a force for good. A record number of people attended events, with an esimated (breathe more deeply) 2.7 million tickets issued.  That statistic represents a 9% increase on last year. 

I have it on good authority that the Festival included performances in a swimming pool, a boat, a football ground, a tunnel and a racecourse.
It featured shows that addressed themes of belonging, identity, grief, Brexit, Trump, fake news, the Syrian conflict, gender and activism.

The Fringe Festival’s Chief Executive Shona McCarthy was appointed in March last year[iii].   
She hails from Northern Ireland and was the Chief Executive of the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013.[iv]   
She summarised the anniversary eloquently:

“This has been a very special year for the Fringe as we celebrated 70 years of defying the norm, 70 years of the greatest melting pot of arts and culture anywhere on the planet, and 70 years of Edinburgh as an internationally renowned festival city..... We look forward to another 70 years of championing the world’s largest platform for creative freedom.”

It’s not only the quantity, but the quality and variety of events which draws in the appreciative crowds.  
Our cultural sprint began at the Gilded Balloon with “Borders[v],” a serious thought-provoking play about migrants on the Mediterranean.   
It was written by Henry Naylor, former head writer for “Spitting Image.”

Our next stop was the Assembly Rooms to see “Alex Salmond Unleashed.[vi] 
Having no expectation what to expect from one of Scotland’s best known politicians, it was a pleasing surprise to witness him in a totally unfamiliar guise.   
His show was like a rehearsal for a prospective career as a stand-up comic and chat show host.  To complete the look, he even had a 6-piece house band for company.  
Next day, I read a newspaper report that he is “in talks” about taking the show on tour.  I needed no prompting to share this scoop with a festival promoter in Belfast.

Event number three was the anarchaic “Don’t be Lonely and Aurora Nova[vii],” a slapstick show performed with mime-artistic physicality by two flexible New Zealanders Barnie Duncan and Trygve Wakenshawe.   
For me to describe it as a skit on office life may be accurate if po-faced because this undersells the show’s humorously manic impression of life as skewed and dysfunctional.

Our final event on day one was the American stand-up comedian Reginald D Hunter’s new show “Some People[viii].”   
Being the best known and experienced of the acts we saw, it was no surprise that his performance came across as the most professional and was staged in the largest venue we visited, the Assembly Hall building.   
Only a stand-up comedian, however, could get away with the irony of performing sitting down, and extracting humour from his love-life’s details and how he came to break his leg in that pursuit.

On day two, which was the final day of the Festival, we somehow managed to make a lucky late booking for one of the year’s hot topics, America’s new President, in a show called Trumpageddon[ix].  

One thing we noticed about all six venues was that the interior temperature always felt slightly too high.  In this case, it seemed to help rather than hinder the performance of exaggerating the obnoxious caricature of a very sweaty leader of the free world.   
He was unpleasant to watch and listen to, but this was presumably all part of the art of satirising someone ad absurdum.

The final act for us was a more conventional play called "1902"[x] about Edinburgh boys, supporters of Hibernian FC, and their collective way of dealing with the challenges of life for young men (and a young lady).  
The setting was the smallest venue we attended, the appropriate Wee Red Bar, part of Edinburgh College of Art.

The human spirit does indeed flourish in Edinburgh and what a great tribute this is to the people of Scotland.  That is because, apart from the Fringe, the separate Edinburgh International Festival also celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.  Its director is Fergus Linehan[xi] who also comes from Ireland.  
The International Festival consists of theatre, opera, music, dance, visual arts and more.  Other festivals that take place in August include the Military Tattoo, the International Book Festival, the International Television Festival, and the Art Festival.

At this point my oxygen pack expires as I stand back, delighted to know that Edinburgh does indeed warrant its title of Festival City.  
I hope it doesn’t take another 70 years before I get invited back.

©Michael McSorley 2017


Monday, 30 January 2017

The Art of Photography


This year got off to the most pleasing of starts.

The spark was the receipt of a number of beautiful old family photographs which had remained hidden from view for over sixty years.  
Before the turn of the year, a remarkable coincidence occurred when on separate occasions, two different people in entirely different places had alerted me to their existence.

Those contacts prompted me to engage in some digging in social media.  
As a result, I realised that the son of my late father’s best friend owns a substantial archive of brilliant photographs.  Not just that, he has gone the extra mile by converting his late father’s negatives and slides into a high resolution digital format.

Before contacting him directly, I discovered that the collection provided what could only be described as a snapshot of the social history of Omagh, my home-town, from the 1950’s onwards.   
I gazed in wonderment at what looked like expertly-taken photos.  They included all sorts of civic occasions from the spectacular town carnival complete with brass bands, troupes of gymnasts, trades vehicles dressed up, and childrens fancy dress: -



to the annual car hill-climb at Syonfin: -

and the Orange Order parade on 12 July with its immaculately turned-out kilted bagpipers: -

All of these images of 1950's Omagh transported me back to my youth.  I was a participant and spectator at many of these events.   
The discovery also sent my adrenalin into a glorious rush producing a huge sense of anticipation at what else the archive might contain.

Digressing slightly (but just for a paragraph), in some ways my sneak peek at the hidden collection reminded me of a series of books published annually by our former family doctor after his retirement.  His photo books were undertaken as a charity fund-raising project on behalf of Omagh Rotary Club.   
In response to an approach from the industrious medic himself before he published anything, I loaned him a few old prints dating from the late 1920’s of my grandparents and of my father as a young sportsman.   
These appeared in some of the earlier volumes.  
Having called time on that project in 2015 after publishing volume number 22[i], the good doctor sadly passed away in the autumn of 2016.   
By dint of his efforts over two decades, I had been made awareof the value of photographs and how the effective collating of images can remind us so vividly of social change.

Having decided not to bother the keeper and owner of these hitherto unknown photographs until after the end of the recent festive season, I made contact with him earlier this month.  After a few exchanges, he kindly offered to extract photographs relating to my family.   
With impressive alacrity, he duly sent me almost fifty shots the very next day.   
Some were grainy black and white photos: -

Picnic at Mullaghmore County Sligo behind the family car, a Mayflower

a larger number were colour snaps so clear that they look like they were taken yesterday on a modern digital device: -

In the current era there is a sense of comfort in re-establishing contact with the past and the customs of your native place.   
Without adding to the fashionable hyperbole, terms like “post-truth era” and “a massive disconnect” between people and their Governments are regularly cited like code-words to describe the fundamental rationale for election results which have confounded opinion pollsters in 2016.   
The conventional wisdom seems to be that as a result of the international economic crisis of 2008 and global movement of business, the ruling political system has become an élite which has ignored ordinary working people.

Different forces appear to have contributed to the spirit of alienation and revolt.  One is the ultimate disconnection when wars displace whole populations.  Another is the impacts on communities and families caused by major economic shock, such as the closure of long-established industries.  The result is political upheaval and social change on both sides of the Atlantic.

To try and make sense of so complex a subject, the literary author and journalist Fintan O’Toole recently gave a public talk well away from the hustle and bustle of global power.  The venue was the brand new Seamus Heaney Homeplace arts centre in Bellaghy, a small village in Northern Ireland.  
As an established author himself, O’Toole was well qualified and subtle enough to place the global economic and migration crises in a literary context.  In support, he cited Heaney’s second poetry collection, “Wintering Out.”

That poetry collection, he reminded his audience, is deeply grounded in a sense of belonging.  Belonging, he urged, means different things – we belong, we feel comfortable, we have a sense of ownership, our place.  But what about incomers, immigrants, making them welcome, to feel that they belong or not.  He embarked on something of a Socratic dialogue to ponder what this sense of belonging means in practice and how might it change post-Brexit.

Whatever the future holds, the rediscovery of realistic images from the past warms the heart in a winter of popular discontent with politics.  
It also reinforces personal pride in parental and grandparental achievements and ipso facto in their contribution to the community.  Their legacy emanated from what they faced in the stark years after two international conflagrations and the most enormous period of social change in human history.  
That was to bequeath our generation with prospects and opportunities, not to squandered, and which are vastly superior to those which they faced then.

In 1905, my grandfather opened a shop in Omagh selling bicycles as well as sporting guns and ammunition. 
In subsequent years, the business diversified into other lines, particularly records, televisions, radios, wet batteries, musical instruments and - at Halowe'en, fireworks. 
This photograph (also from the long-lost archive[ii]) was taken at an event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the business. It includes staff, family, friends, local dignatories as well as commercial suppliers.

Photography is a creative art. In the manner of a Rembrandt painting, a shaft of light shines down on my mother as she and my father sit in the middle of the second row.  Her satin dress gleams for the camera.

©Michael McSorley 2017

[i] “Images of Omagh” Dr Haldane Mitchell volumes 1 to 22
[ii]  Acknowledgement George McDermott (dec'd) and his son Patrick

Monday, 28 November 2016

Books of the year

This is the time of year for retrospectives.  Everything from films of the year, best theatrical productions, best music releases, best art exhibitions, and not forgetting the many creative artists who have passed away over the past twelve months.   
It has been quite a year in so many ways.

So just before December’s weekend supplements publish recommendations by a mix of academics, poets, artists and famous citizens about all kinds of books they have read and recommend, let me list a few good ones that have kept me going in 2016.

Such was the emphasis of reviews in two national broadsheets at the start of the year that I simply had to order a copy of “The Noise of Time.”   
Written by the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, Julian Barnes, this is a fictional account of the life of the great Russian composer Shostakovich and his survival under the despotism of Stalin.   
This novel paints a different image of the musical genius than the somewhat more jovial man in Sara Quigley‘s prize-winning novel about the awful siege of Leningrad, “The Conductor.”  
The impact of tyranny, however, is brilliantly articulated by both authors.   
One reviewer[i] summarised Barnes’s new book as 

“...structured in three parts that come together like a broken chord.  It is a simple but brilliant device.... Out of the rubble comes a life; out of the noise comes music.”

Another reviewer[ii] described it with no equivocation whatsoever as

“a masterpiece of biographical fiction.”

One fascinating non-fiction book to catch my attention this year was “Lingo” by the Dutch journalist and multi-linguist Gaston Dorren.  
In a year when European integration has been the topic of intensive debate, this humorous book reminds us of our inextricable cultural connections by examining fifty or more European languages and dialects.  
Full of amusing anecdotes, Dorren observes all kinds of linguistic parallels, including examples of words which English has borrowed from many of its European neighbours.

Never does a year pass in the modern era without something original and brilliant coming out of the north-west of our continent.  Among others, let me mention two "Nordic" novels.  One represents the tried and tested genre of crime fiction, noir being the word, so consistently portrayed by their authors; whereas the other book is a total contrast being funny.
The former is a scary and unnerving story set in a remote part of Iceland.  It is titled “I remember you” and written by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.  The latter is a moving testament to ageing called “Hitman Anders” by Jonas Jonasson.  This is his follow-up to the hilarious and best-selling novel “The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.”

Another gripping novel in a similar vein, in terms of empathy with issues of ageing, was given to me by a friend at no cost thanks to the generosity of the year’s World Book Night in April.  This beautiful story, “Last bus to Coffeeville,” is set in the United States.  Its author is J Paul Henderson.

Closer to home the next crime thriller novel and a winner of Los Angeles Book Prize for fiction was recommended to me by my bibliophile wife.  “The Twelve” by Stuart Neville is a page-turning tale set in a bleakly realistic Northern Ireland suffering the appalling and violent excesses of the so-called Troubles.   
Ulster noir feels even more unsettling than its Scandi-equivalent, in this case probably because Neville is fictionalising events against the reality of recent history.

A special mention has to go to the Irish Times journalist and commentator Fintan O’Toole.  
I finally got around to buying his non-fiction book, published a couple of years ago, and which was inspired by the encyclopaedic “A History of the World in 100 objects” by Neil McGregor.   

O’Toole’s diligent research and knowledge have resulted in the very impressive “A History of Ireland in 100 Objects.”  These companion pieces are two desirable objects in their own rite.

The best novel I have read in 2016 is “Alone in Berlin” by Hans Fallada.  
Originally published in 1947[iii], it was not translated and published in English until 1975.  
In some ways, the harrowing narrative parallels the Julian Barnes story about surviving Soviet tyranny. 
Fallada, like Barnes, bases the story on a real-life events, namely that of a German couple (nondescript compared to the Shostakovich protrayed by Barnes) trying to stand up to and resist the domestic impacts of Nazi horrors.   

Taken together, such novels illustrate both the meaningless of labels like right and left to describe authoritarianism; and also that evil flourishes only when good men sit back and do nothing.

Finally, having begun by setting an objective to present a selection of books that I have read before the professionals publish their lists in December's weekend supplements, I see that the papers I buy on Saturday[iv] and Sunday[v] have already - on this final weekend of November - embarked on that process. And, in very thorough style too.  
Even if there’s no way I can pip them, I might as well try and join them.

©Michael McSorley 2016

[i] Robert Douglas-Fairhurst The Times Saturday Review 16 Jan 2016
[ii] Alex Preston The Observer New Review 17 Jan 2016
[iv] The Times, 26 November 2016 Saturday Review Books of the Year pp 5-18
[v] Observer New Review 27 November 2016 Books of the Year pp34-38