Category Archives: Culture

For the other side of my work, dealing with cultural outreach

The Social Network/Travelling Light

This weekend I saw a play about film and a film about social networks, which seemed to fit together nicely.

Travelling Light is a new play by Nicholas Wright, directed by Nicholas Hytner. As this is the team behind His Dark Materials, my feeling was that it couldn’t really go wrong. And it didn’t. There’s something quite intellectually satisfying about examining one medium through another, requiring you as it does to think about the characteristics of each in relation to the other. The set was, once again at the National, absolutely stunning: its 3D representation of the shtetl in which the play was set only seemed to exaggerate the 2D nature of the films that we saw. The presence of live actors reacting with joy and wonder to what were very old fashioned cinemactic images reminded us just how exciting and magical cinema must have been to its early viewers. The friend I went with commented at the end that there didn’t seem to be much energy emanating from the audience to the actors – not words you would ever utter exiting a film theatre. My (well-documented!) love of theatre does come from that immediacy – a performance once given is lost forever, and each is unique, depending on the mix on the night of the cast, crew and audience. This was all made very much more obvious by watching a depiction of early pioneers of film producing such a staged (haha) experience.

And then on Sunday I watched The Social Network, about the creation of Facebook, which was a lot better than a) I thought it would be and b) it could have been. Again, a strong script and strong director at the helm are fundamental, and a film by the writer of the West Wing and the director of Seven is likely to be a good bet. I have seen other films about computing or in which computing is a main element that handle much less well the fact that watching people type things on a screen doesn’t make great cinema. Music seems to matter a lot in film, more than in theatre, maybe because there are fewer ways to create an atmosphere in film – lighting, set etc are going to be less immediate for a film audience, who might be watching it at home with all the lights on, in a film theatre in the dark, or nowadays, on their phone on a train. So music becomes a much more important tool. And Trent Reznor’s soundtrack was amazing – atmospheric but not intrusive (I only just realised it got an Oscar, so clearly it’s not just me that thinks so). A central point for me about the film was Zuckerberg’s certainty that what he had was going to change the way we thought about a whole range of things. Eduardo trawling Madison Avenue for a few hundred thousand of old-style ad money while Mark was signing venture capital deals for half a billion chimes with the truism that Facebook isn’t free, we just don’t pay money for it. Coming as it does in a week when Google do seem to have jumped the privacy shark, it was useful to have that message reinforced.

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Filed under Culture, Digital/social media, Living in London

Back in the saddle

Sorry about the sustained radio silence – I’ve been off for medical reasons for a while. I hope you didn’t miss the information about Friday’s #EUuk blogging event, which is now full, but can be followed on Twitter via the #EUuk hashtag and will also be filmed and available via the Rep’s Dailymotion site afterwards. I’m also sure there will be quite a few blogposts about it. We’ve got a great line-up with heavyweight political blogging names such as Guido Fawkes Bagehot and Left Foot Forward taking part, never mind the cream of those blogging about the EU.

This conference is part of two weeks of all kinds of events – political, cultural, musical – to mark the opening of our new premises at 32 Smith Square. On 15 December I will be involved in a poetry evening, where EU ambassadors will bring poems from their country and Jonathan, our head of rep, and I will read the English translations. The full list of events is available here.

Part of the reason of a week of events is to draw attention to the existence of the public space here, which is available for events discussing issues of European relevance. So if you think you have an appropriate event and need a Central London venue, think of Europe House!

Also while I was off, we launched officially the web version of the What’s In It For Me booklet, to some praise, and quite a lot of controversy. Given that it was based on a product that has been in considerable demand (we only send publications out to those who ask for them), we’re confident it will prove useful.

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Every Day I Write the Book

It’s World Book Day today. I’m sure you knew that. We’re having a book swap in our office – people have brought in books they are happy to give away, others can take what they want, and anything left over goes to a charity shop. At home we’re in the middle of having new book shelving up, and we have so many books as it is that I think I’d be in the spare room if I brought any more in! But it’s a great idea. There’s a nice article about World Book Day over on europe.org.uk which mentions the European Literature Night we’re involved with in May. So Happy World Book Day to everyone. Here’s a question – what’s the one book you would recommend everyone read before they die? I guess mine would be (gosh this is quite difficult, isn’t it…) erm… probably Northern Lights (and the other His Dark Materials books) by Philip Pullman.

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Le plat pays

I lived for 13 years in Belgium and a very happy 13 years they were. It’s easy to get around, it’s got urban, rural, all the major bands play there, it’s got loads going on, you’re near stuff elsewhere – day trips shopping in Lille, or going to stadium gigs in France, Christmas market in Aachen. Yes there are internal tensions, but that’s not unique – there doesn’t seem to me to be much love lost between north and south England sometimes, and I’m sure some French people would love the idea of getting shot of Paris! Most countries of continental Europe have existed in some other form in the past – why single Belgium out as a non-country on that basis?

Various things do unite Belgians, and perhaps most importantly, distinguish them from their neighbours in France and the Netherlands. For example, try getting a meal in a restaurant in the Netherlands after 9.30 pm: in all parts of Belgium kitchens are often open past midnight and they do enjoy their food and leisure in a very non-Northern European way. You can even eat the kebabs when you’re sober…!

There’s the old chestnut that there are no famous Belgians. A very trendy restaurant in central Brussels has a wall covered with the names of famous Belgians, which makes you realise that the problem is most people think the famous Belgians are from somewhere else. Even if we discount the many famous Flemish School painters, on the basis that Belgium didn’t exist as a separate nation then, the Belga Queen will tell you that the famously French Johnny Hallyday is Belgian.

Another famous Belgian that most people think is French is the incomparable Jacques Brel. I came across him only a few years ago, when I was asked to do a speech on him for the annual Caledonian Society Burns Supper. One “best of ” album from iTunes and a bit of googling later, and I was hooked. Interestingly in light of some of the recent discussion, he was fiercely proud of being Belgian. Not Flemish, not Walloon, but Belgian. He once said:

“If I were king, I would send all the Flemings to Wallonia and all the Walloons to Flanders for six months. Like military service. They would live with a family and that would solve all our ethnic and linguistic problems very fast. Because everybody’s tooth aches in the same way, everybody loves their mother, everybody loves or hates spinach. And those are the things that really count.”

He wrote the achingly lovely “Le Plat Pays” a love song to his country which doesn’t dress it up, but for me really captures a lot about the place. Here he is in action:

If you’re not familiar with him, you have to watch his performance of Amsterdam, I’ve watched this loads, heard the song hundreds of times, but it still give me goosebumps.

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Come home

I was at the Royal Court Theatre last night, at the invitation of their Development department. I saw two things – Over There by Mark Ravenhill and Wall with David Hare. What a night – one of the best I’ve had since moving to London.

The two pieces were very different. The first is about identical twins separated by the Berlin Wall and then brought back together. I have to admit I went with a little trepidation, as I saw Handbag by the same writer in Brussels about 7 years ago and thoroughly loathed it. But it’s a good job I didn’t let that put me off. Because Over There, directed by Ravenhill and one of the Royal Courts resident directors, Ramin Gray, is a masterclass. What I love about it as an art form is its teamwork – no one person can do it alone. The director has to have a clear vision, but he or she can – indeed should – draw on the creativity, innovation and vision of the team around him or her. In this case the designer Johannes Schutz had done something amazing. The stage was a box – no wings, nowhere to go. Obvious symbolism in that, but it left the actors very exposed. They were wonderful – Harry and Luke Treadaway. They look like each other, naturally, but they were just different enough not to mess too much with the audiences heads! Because there was enough head-messing going on as it was. I left feeling challenged, invigorated, excited, slightly disgusted…but most of all as much in love with theatre as I ever have been. It was a sterling example of how theatre retains that power to shock, question, engage. It’s only on for another week, but I would highly recommend it if you get a chance to go. On the train home I picked up thelondonpaper and theire reviewer gave it 5 stars out of 5. I have to agree.

The second piece was totally different. It was billed as a “reading” by David Hare of a piece about the wall being built in Israel. It was directed by Stephen Daldry. It was just a middle-aged bloke in a white shirt and black jeans standing on a stage and reading. Though of course it wasn’t. The touch of the director was barely discernible, yet undeniably there, probably most of all in the moments when Hare wasn’t reading from the sheaf of pages in his hand, which he let fall around him as the piece moved on, but rather addressing the audience directly and seamlessly returning to his “reading”. Of course, with Hare (I directed The Blue Room as few years ago in Brussels) the words are king and are his strength. I saw The Year of Magical Thinking at the National a while ago, performed by Vanessa Redgrave and directed by him, and though it was a tour de force performance from her, I found it far too static as a piece, as well as 15 minutes too long – it had reached what seemed to be a natural end, and then seemed to limp on for a bit more. And yet last night, even though it was the same thing – one person on a stage – it didn’t seem static and it certainly didn’t feel too long. After the privilege of seeing Michael Nyman playing Michael Nyman, how great now to see David Hare acting David Hare. This is the compensation, really, for having left behind all my friends and theatre involvement in Brussels. It was like coming home.

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Girls on film

My feet aren’t on the ground today, because of yesterday’s brush with celebrity – I was at a party with Simon Le Bon!! I was at the relaunch of the Whitechapel Gallery last night, because it is part-funded with European money and we were paying for the reception. It was already amazing being at the world premiere of Michael Nyman’s new piece, played by…Michael Nyman. Then we went in to dinner. I was sat with the managing director of the gallery (a tractor boy, incidentally!) and we were talking about music and which bands we liked. He said have you seen Duran Duran, I said, yes in Antwerp, he said no I mean have you seen them over there…and there they were. I had a direct view across at Nick Rhodes (looking better than he ever did in the 80s) and then a bit later saw Simon (of whom the same is, alas, not true). Unfortunately my Britishness stopped me from rushing up and saying hello, but I did have fun texting all my gal pals to let them know. Every text back started “Oh. My. God”. The event itself was lovely, the Gallery is going to be great and it was fun rubbing shoulders, albeit for one night, with the glitterati.

Stumbled across this great science story via a random link to my blog. Maybe if there had been more custard in my science lessons I’d be in a lab not an office right now. Though I do remember making rhubarb wine in one …

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Baby you can drive my car

There’s so much going on today, what with those terrible fires in Australia, Premier League managers being sacked left, right and centre and all the hoo-ha about bankers’ bonuses, that I suspect Neelie Kroes’ meeting with the roundtable to discuss the future of the car block exemption may have gone unnoticed. I wrote about this issue in September, when it hit some of the papers. Today Kroes gave a “cast iron guarantee” that she would “not agree to any change to the rules that will make life harder for independent repairers”. She  also said that the Commission “will not use competition policy to put unnecessary barriers in front of efforts to help the industry survive and adapt”.

Coming back to the fires, it beggars belief that anybody could deliberately start those fires, knowing how often Australia suffers. What is going on in the heads of these people? When I was Science Spokeswoman, we did a report every year about the previous season’s fires, as well as showing the system developed for monitoring and warning about fires. The 2007 report says for Italy, just to take an example:

The most worrying aspect is the increase in arson that, in percentages, is the highest since 1998 and concerns the cause of nearly 7000 fires ; it has more than doubled since last year.

If you have friends or family in Australia, I hope they are safe and well. It does make you appreciate the good things that you have.

For me that was very evident this weekend, with three of my closest friends from Brussels coming over to stay with me, and while they were here we managed to catch up with loads of other friends. The best weekend I’ve had in years. We went to Strictly Live, which was hilarious fun, and also managed to catch Derek Jacobi as Malvolio in Twelfth Night as part of the Donmar in the West End season  – what a pleasure to see one of the greats in action. Not even the uselessness of London’s transport could get us down – neither the Northern Line nor the Jubilee line was working (fairly crucial if you’re going from Balham to the O2) so we drove, a trip of 11 miles that took 1.5 hours – an average speed of 7.33 miles per hour by my reckoning.

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