No happy ending in site for Brighton’s Hippodrome

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For those who are new to the drama surrounding the fate of the Brighton Hippodrome (where have you been? Stuck on a late-running train?) let me bring you up to speed.

Last year the city council gave Alaska Development Consultants the green light to turn the former bingo hall into an eight-screen cinema operated by the Vue chain. Then a grassroots protest group called Our Brighton Hippodrome launched an online petition and inevitable Facebook campaign to block the plans. The petition attracted thousands of signatures.

On Sunday the sudden appearance of the Pavilion constituency’s parliamentary candidates standing alongside the protestors in Middle Street alerted onlookers to the fact that a bandwagons was rolling. Our Brighton Hippodrome claimed that new landlord had dropped the curtain on the cinema scheme.

But, as fans of farce will know, all was not what it seemed. At the end of the week the city council released a “clarifying statement” which was anything but. It read: “The property is still under the ownership of Kuig Property Investments Ltd. Alaska are aware that Kuig Property Investments did invite bids at the end of 2014 for the purchase of the Hippodrome, however that process has not yet concluded. We have had no involvement or dialogue with potential purchasers so unfortunately we are unable to provide comment on what their future plans for the buildings might involve.”

The theatre group’s victory looks to be Pyrrhic.

A district valuer’s report has concluded that the development of the building as a theatre would not be commercially viable, making an annual loss of £250,000.

The protesters have called the report flawed but have not said why this is so. They have yet to produce a detailed, realistic and viable scheme of their own.

Last August, Samantha Johnson, inspector of historic buildings and areas at English Heritage’s south east office wrote to Maria Bowen at the Department of Communities and Local Government to underline the fact that English Heritage believed the plans for the cinema complex represented “the best chance to conserve the heritage asset.”

She said: “In summary, English Heritage considers that the proposals, while harmful to the significance of the grade II* listed building, are justifiable in policy terms because of the public benefits they would deliver, the principle one of which is securing the future of what is now a very vulnerable building at risk.”

For a city that likes to see itself as ahead of the curve, Brighton and Hove is remarkably resistant to change. The seafront remains littered with stalled projects. Marlborough House on the Old Steine, a fine late 18th century villa, has long been empty and unloved. I may be wrong but I do not expect the new owners of the Hippodrome to unveil any dramatic ideas.

Development in the city has long been in the grip of opaque profiteers. Despite the cheers of the conservationists there is no happy ending insight.

This article was first published in The Argus on January 17.

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The truth and Truman Capote

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In his introduction to an anthology of New Journalism, published in 1973 and now out of print, Tom Wolfe lampoons the appalled reaction of the old guard to the blend of literary technique and newspaper reportage which made his name as a feature writer.

“These people must be piping it, winging it, making up the dialogue… Christ, maybe they’re making up whole scenes, the unscrupulous geeks…”

It turns out the stick-in-the-muds had a point.

Ronald Nye, the son of a Kansas lawman involved in the investigation of the brutal murders described by Truman Capote in his ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood, is to publish his father’s field notes which he says contradicts important elements of Capote’s groundbreaking account.

“Capote had a fact here, and a fact there, and filled in the gaps with literary licence,” Nye said.

In 1959, two drifters, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were convicted of murdering Herbert Clutter, his wife and their two children. The pair were hanged in 1965 after a manhunt and trial which gripped the United States. Capote’s account of the senseless slaughter of a family and the search for the killers had an equally powerful impact. As Wolfe points out, Capote was a respected novelist and his account ran as a serial in The New Yorker before it was published as a book. Capote’s book, along with Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, established the non-fiction novel as a genre worth taking seriously. In Cold Blood, Tom Wolfe wrote, was “a very meticulous and impressive job”.

That wasn’t the reaction of Harold Nye who worked at the Kansas Bureau of Investigations for 20 years. His son says his father threw Capote’s book across the room in disgust, calling it “garbage”.

Capote made no notes when he interviewed people for his book. He later claimed to have “near-perfect” recall. In his account, KBI agents raced to interview the parents of one of the murderers following a tip off and smartly extracted incriminating information. But according to Harold Nye’s detailed records, investigators visited the house five days after the tip off, by which time the killers had fled to Florida where they would be implicated in another killing.

Nye suggests Capote played up the role of KBI investigator Alvin Dewey who gave the novelist access to key witnesses and also to the convicted murderers.

Of course, journalist have always shaped their material to make it more readable. Hunter S Thompson made no bones about the fictional framework that held up his manic accounts of presidential elections, boxing matches and an off-road race near Las Vegas.

But it is one thing to pepper a colour feature with twisted scenes of drug-induced mania and another to exaggerate and invent incidents in an account of the murder of four members of one family.

The legacy of New Journalism can be found in the tedious features detailing a writer’s tube journey to interview a movie star, the colour of the hotel carpet and the quality of the canapés. More seriously, it can tempt a writer to play fast and loose with the facts.

The journalist Johann Hari was suspended by the Independent newspaper when it was discovered that he had plagiarised material previously published by his interviewees. He was also accused of exaggerating his use of Ecstasy and of falsely claiming to be present at the death of an anti-capitalist protester during the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.

Hari later apologised but the damage had been done. The editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, told the Leveson inquiry that Hari’s behaviour had “severely damaged” the newspaper’s reputation.

No doubt to some practitioners of New Journalism, Hari’s faults probably seem marginal at worst.

Tom Wolfe wrote: “One of the greatest changes brought about by this new breed of journalists has been… that the proof of one’s technical mastery as a writer becomes paramount and the demonstration of moral points becomes secondary.”

There is no doubting Capote’s technical mastery and In Cold Blood remains essential reading. But if you want to read an accurate report of an event, you should probably avoid the literary lion in favour of someone with decent shorthand.

This article was first published by The Guardian on December 5.

Little Dragon need more firepower

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Little Dragon

Corn Exchange

Church Street

Brighton

November 17

Yukimi Nagano, the frontwoman for Swedish electronic outfit Little Dragon, may be diminutive but she possesses the stage presence to dominate a venue ten times the size of the Corn Exchange. Dressed as a goddess of spring flowers she prowled, skipped, struck arabesque and neo-classical poses and had the enthusiastic audience under her full control from the start. Her vocal range is limited, but her charisma is like a tidal river sweeping all in its path.

The same cannot be said for her fellow band members. Fredrik Källgren Wallin (keyboards and bass), Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards) and Erik Bodin (drums) exuded the collective personality of a beer mat and their musicianship on this occasion verged on the sloppy. On the bands recordings, first-rate production polishes some very average songs. Live, they were reduced to reverb-drenched longueurs.

This is not to say the night was a total disappointment. ‘Klapp Klapp’, ‘Ritual Union’ and ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ are sturdy constructions and were able to withstand the rough treatment they received.

On this showing I predict a starry future for Nagano and perhaps back room careers for the boys.

This article was first published in The Argus on November 18

It’s early! Brighton Baroque on a roll

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Ars Eloquentiae

Latest Music Bar

November 1

If you bumped into the five fresh faced members of Ars Eloquentiae cooling their heels at a train station you might guess that they are musicians. Pressed to specify what kind of music they perform, you’d probably plump for something along the lines of the virtuoso sturm und drang of Radiohead.

In a sense, you wouldn’t be that wide of the mark. The six-piece ensemble may have swapped guitars and drums for recorder, cello, violins and harpsichord , but their performances of 18th century pieces by Marais, Rameau, Vivaldi and others, posses a swagger and dynamism not a million miles away from Thom Yorke’s boys.

At the Latest Music Bar in Manchester Street, Brighton, on Saturday morning, they presented a ‘Sentimental Journey’, punctuating the musical performances with quotations from Laurence Sterne’s novel. Laszlo Rozsa on the recorder tackled the tricky Baroque licks with aplomb while violinists James Toll and Guy Botton displayed an unbuttoned flair for period pieces that can feel stale from more self-effacing performers. Gavin Kelly on cello and Chad Kelly on harpsichord laid a secure floor from which their more florid partners could tackle the dizzy changes in keys and temp that characterise the enduring appeal of Early Music.

Brighton Early Music Festival: Paris – Convent Divas, St Paul’s Church, West Street, Brighton,

Sunday

November 2

The fact that it was standing room only at St Paul’s Church is testament to the appeal of 17th century church music.

The wind was howling down a sodden West Street, but inside the church an atmosphere of ethereal peace was conjured by Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, and the Brighton Festival Youth Choir under the direction of Esther Jones and Deborah Roberts.

Compositions for chromatic a cappella performances grew out of the taste for high voices in 16th century Italy. Composers such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean Baptistse Lully, and Marin Marais gained fame in the world of small scale sacred vocal music.

For this evening’s performance, the directors chose the Propers for St Margaret. Propers are liturgical texts that vary for service to service. The singing mostly featured solo voices with the choir responding to the sopranos’ lead.

The performance was all the more powerful for an absence of vocal pyrotechnics with Katharine Hawnt, Elizabeth Dobbin and Deborah Rogers delivering plain but enchanting melodies, subtly augmented by Claire Williams at the organ.

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Brighton Early Music Festival: Leipzig: Bach’s secret addiction – Bach and Telemann meet at Cafe Zimmerman, The Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove
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November 2

It was George Santayana who said that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The 19th century philosopher would no doubt take pleasure in the fact the city elders of 18th century Leipzig were unnerved by the habits of the youth who were spending far too much time sitting around in coffee houses talking about changing the world – after the next invigorating cuppa.

The trend was sufficiently widespread for Bach to briefly abandon the religiose themes of his cantatas in favour of a mild satire revolving around a father who despairs of his daughter giving up the evil caffeine in order to make a decent marriage.

The Little Baroque Company commissioned a new translation of the work by Carla Blackwood to drive home the modern parallels: “It’s always Starbucks! Espresso! Latte! Aargh! When will you hear my phrase/and give up this coffee craze!”

The audience were treated to coffee and cakes while they listened and the brew was given added piquancy with the addition of Handel’s Overture to Ariodante and Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte.

It was light frothy fare, which sent the audience back into the autumnal squalls feeling slightly perkier than when they arrived.

Why a stand up comedian says she’s nothing special

Francesca Martinez

Ropetackle Arts Centre

Shoreham

October 30

When Francesca Martinez was born, medical professionals told her parents that their new-born daughter was physically and mentally retarded. This is patently not the case, as she told the audience at the City Books event, as she doesn’t read The Sun or vote UKIP.

The actor-cum-comedian is on tour to promote her new book “What the F**** Is Normal” which describes the pleasures and pitfalls of growing up wobbly. Her brain was deprived of oxygen at birth causing cerebral palsy. But Martinez is not one for misery memoirs. This was an evening of joy, laughter and at times anger as Martinez, interviewed by fellow comedian Jen Brister, delivered her very straightforward message – don’t let others define you – with charm and wit. She even had a good word for Russell Brand as one of the few celebrities willing to stick their neck out and say that all is not well with the nation’s political leadership.

Not that Martinez wishes to be seen as a role model. “It’s not inspirational it’s common sense!” she insisted as she dissected the needs of others to judge her based on the way she looks and talks – and the fact she likes Frank Sinatra.

She raised a big cheer from the audience when she declared: “Accepting who you are is an act of civil disobedience.”

Catch her when you can – just don’t call her inspirational, ok?

This article first appeared in The Argus on October 31 2014

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Browsing the bookshop shelf is more rewarding than surfing souless sites

 

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The next time you spot a book you have been meaning to read for ages nestling among the items conveniently suggested to you by your friendly giant online retailer, pause before you hit “one-click ordering”. There is something soulless about the process, a commercial transaction untouched by human emotion.

How much more rewarding to stroll into an independent bookstore, each as individual as its owner, in search of the latest John Le Carre, only to stroll out instead with a biography of Churchill, a compendium of crosswords, a present for your partner, and, possibly, a little bit of gossip about what the vicar told the council officer when they were in the shop last week.

Last week “super-Thursday” in the book world – the day when major publishers launch what they hope will be their big Christmas blockbusters. New books by John Cleese, Jacqueline Wilson, and Heston Blumenthal will crowd the windows of bookshops across the county. The promotion will give a much appreciated shot in the arm to beleaguered booksellers.

Sales nationwide dropped by £98 million or 6.5% last year but the rate of the decline is slowing, according to experts. Super Thursday generated sales of £34.7 million and this year booksellers are hoping for more of the same.

But beyond the once-a-year hype, entrepreneurial booksellers are showing what can be done to drum up sales. In Hove, City Books, founded and run by Paul and Inge Sweetman, is a beacon of civilisation on Western Road. Its imaginative events programme has attracted a raft of well-known authors to talk about their works. This season will see appearances by Will Self, John Lydon, Claire Balding and the Reverend Richard Coles, among others.

Events such as these foster the sense of community and help to bring the books alive in a way that the online behemoths never can.

It’s a myth that bookish people are loners – as the mushrooming of book clubs has shown.

Shut down that computer and head off to your nearest independent bookshop – you never know where that journey might take you.

 

This piece was first published in The Argus on October 12, 2014

Why calls for an boycott of Israel do a disservice to Palestinians

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Noam Chomsky is not a household name in the United Kingdom. He is an expert in abstruse linguistic theory and has produced well-regarded academic works in cognitive science and artificial intelligence.

Among  international left-wing activists he is admired as a trenchant critic of the foreign policies of the United States and Israel.

In July, he published a surprising essay in The Nation magazine in which he took issue with the tactics of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. He believes comparisons between Israel and the apartheid state of South Africa are misleading and self-defeating.

He wrote: “Failed initiatives harm the victims doubly—by shifting attention from their plight to irrelevant issues (anti-Semitism at Harvard, academic freedom, etc.), and by wasting current opportunities to do something meaningful.”

It is doubtful that Professor Chomsky has heard of Councillor Ben Duncan who represents the Queen’s Park area in Brighton, but his words are a perfect description of Cll Duncan’s call for the city council to join the international boycott of Israeli firms.

Council officials moved quickly to thwart any debate of his motion but Cllr Duncan has vowed to fight back. It is difficult to see this as anything other than gesture politics.

According to a reply to my Freedom of |Information request, which I received this week, Brighton and Hove City Council keeps no record of where the firms it does business with are headquartered.

The leader of the Green Party administration at the council, Cllr Jason Kitcat, said:”Ownership is fluid, complex and can change. Our ethical and sustainable procurement policies do put stringent requirements on bidders though.”

A spokesman for the city council said: “As far as I’m aware, the vast  majority of our council contracts are with British firms. The question of whether any of them ‘have links and affiliations with companies in Israel’ does not arise during a tender process or as part of our financial checks. Therefore we have no information on this.”

A list of the city’s contracts and  contractors can be seen here