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If you like castles, but want more bang for your castle quid than the disappointing palace at Brighton, I recommend Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The official residence of HRH Queen Elizabeth II in Scotland, Holyrood sits at the bottom of the Royal Mile between the city and the Salisbury crags.


You can’t go up into the apartments that the royal family use now, but you can wander through the public reception rooms and the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots (which are really much more interesting anyway).
Mary liked both of the castles on the Royal Mile; her son James was born up the hill at Edinburgh castle, and she spent some time decorating her rooms at Holyrood to mimic the “sophisticated interior style of the South”.
A tiny room off her bedchamber was used as a dining room where Mary would sit with her ladies in waiting and entertain her private secretary David Rizzio. Her second husband Lord Darnley took issue with how close a relationship Mary had with her secretary, and one day he and a gang of personal thugs stormed into the queen’s bedchamber at Holyrood and stabbed Rizzio fifty-seven times while he clutched desperately to Mary’s gown.


Rizzio was buried out here. Seems unpleasant king consorts can kill anyone they want without getting into trouble. Even their wife’s boyfriend

Now that’s a crime of passion. But not really. While Lord Darnley probably wasn’t jealous of the romantic relationship Rizzio may have had with Mary, he was a little concerned about the how the closeness between the two might effect his proximity to the throne. He had previously attacked Mary in attempt to cause her to miscarry, and was otherwise an unpleasant, violent, syphilis riddled drunk.

He was eventually strangled/exploded somewhere here in Edinburgh’s Old Town. By someone. Possibly Mary.
Nemo me impune lacessit
Nemo me impune lacessit. Rough translation: Don’t mess with the queen.


“There really aren’t any plaques around for these things. If you were gonna put a plaque up everywhere in Edinburgh Rabbie Burns got drunk you’d need five thousand of them, and there ain’t anyone’s got that kinda money.”

On Saturday I went with a group of students from my residence on a literary pub crawl around Edinburgh. The tour was led by Allan Foster, the author of The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh and The Literary Traveller in Scotland. He greeted us on the Royal Mile, then took us to a tiny pub called The Royal Oak often frequented by Ian Rankin, author the hugely popular Inspector Rebus novels. If this little pub had been completely empty when we got there we still probably wouldn’t have all fit in.

The locals responded with slightly hostile bewilderment when thirty students came to loiter in the doorway and take turns to shuffle to the bar to buy a pint. “What? Did you all just get off a bus or somthin’?”

Pub tour.

First stop after The Royal Oak was the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where Arthur Conan Doyle studied with Doctor Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Right behind that is a building where Charles Darwin studied, which is right next to the private medical school where Burke and Hare sold the bodies of their victims for dissection (the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatchers), the same building that Stevenson visited to see a friend recovering from a leg amputation. A man who became the inspiration for Long John Silver, probably the world’s most famous fictional pirate.

Then we headed over to a pub called The Maltings, previously frequented by a Scots language poetry collective. Inside we found Ian Rankin. Unsurprisingly Rankin didn’t introduce himself to our gaggle of literary tourists, but stayed hunched over the bar with two wizened looking men who looked like they could have easily been the inspiration for the cranky, drunken detectives from his books. He didn’t participate in the Hens’ night karaoke either.

We then ambled through George Square, the heart of the University of Edinburgh’s main campus, where Sir Walter Scott lived and Alexander McCall Smith was first published. We heard stories about J.K. Rowling, J.M. Barrie and the world’s favourite bad poet William McGonagall.

The tour was great fun. I really couldn’t be studying English Literature any place better than Edinburgh.

The important issue of nudity in opera has finally been taken up by the mainstream media.

Read more of my ramblings about nude opera here and here.

War Horse

I was walking to the Tate Modern on Thursday morning when I passed the National Theatre. I had seen reviews of War Horse and wanted to see it, but all the performances on while I was in London had sold out. I thought I might as well see if they had any day tickets left but it was about an hour after the box office opened, and noticing the ‘queue for tickets starts here’ sign, I didn’t fancy my luck.

Last ticket, front row middle, ten pounds. Awesome.

War Horse tells the story of the first World War through the eyes of animals that have no possible interest in political events. The horses are played by brilliant, life-size puppets, operated by up to three puppeteers per horse. They are constructed in a way so that the human characters can ride the puppets. I’ve never seen anything like it.


The review I saw in The Guardian said that once the performance begins you forget that you’re watching puppets rather than actual horses (and geese, swallows and ravens). But I don’t entirely agree.

I love good puppetry. But I don’t think in watching puppetry you ever forget that the puppets aren’t real. I think that the reason puppets are so enthralling is because they instantly take you to a sort of mythical level of storytelling. You understand and believe the story, but you never loose the sense of awe invoked by watching objects become characters.

That sort of idea is reflected in the puppet design for this production. The makers of the horses were not primarily concerned with realism – the frames of the puppets are a central feature of their design and they have no hide. Later in the play an injured and emaciated horse limps on three hooves and a limb that looks more like a piano leg. The puppeteers are dressed in early twentieth century style farm-hand clothes (rather than stage blacks) and act out the emotion of the horse they are playing on their faces – they are not intended to be invisible.

These puppets do not need to look like real horses to be convincing; the way that they move is entirely persuasive.

War Horse is based on a children’s book, but I think the play is certainly too violent for very young children, particularly when so much of the violence involves animals being abused by people. A woman in the row behind me actually screamed when one of the horses died.

The appeal of the play goes beyond the simple affinity people tend to have with animals.
The helpless horses are a good analogy for the people who put their lives at risk during the war with little motivation but patriotism and trust in authority. I wouldn’t call the play emotionally manipulative, but it was certainly deliberately affecting. War Horse was first performed at the National Theatre in October last year and is already back on stage. I think it is a brilliant example of how effective the broader theatre arts can be.


War Horse
National Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company
Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo

Olivier Theatre

National Theatre

On Friday I went back to the National Gallery to have a closer look at LOVE – a touring exhibition curated in partnership with Bristol’s Museums, Galleries & Archives and Tyne & Wear Museums. I went quickly through on Wednesday, but wanted to have a proper look at it all (and take up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hang something on the National Gallery’s esteemed walls).

I really enjoy small thematic exhibitions when they are well done. Working at a gallery earlier this year I found that exhibitions with a theme were generally the most popular and the most fun to work at. While you can get tired of an single exhibiting artist’s ‘rugged rural aesthetic’ surprisingly quickly, when you have a collection of works by multiple artists there is always something exciting to find.

LOVE only takes up about three rooms of the gallery, but includes a huge range of styles, eras and subjects. It covers themes of religious devotion, romantic love, parental love, desire and charity. There are works from major artists including Goya, Vermeer, Chagall, Raphael, Turner, plus contributions from some modern artists: David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono.

I wasn’t aware that Ono was taken at all seriously as an artist until I saw that she had a piece in the Sydney Biennale this year (not that being included in the Sydney Biennale is a definitive mark of being taken seriously as an artist). I suppose this is just unfair skepticism about the value of performance art on my part, and distrust of incidental celebrity. Her work in the Biennale was a telephone (attached to a nondescript wall) which she planned to call at various (undisclosed) times during festival. I didn’t hear it ring.

In LOVE Yoko Ono’s contribution was Secret Piece III – (from the catalogue):

“A new conceptual work of art, conceived by Yoko Ono, will develop as the exhibition takes place, one that encourages contemplation on the visual articulation of love. Secret Piece III invites each visitor to contribute an image of, or a message for, a loved one to a blank canvas… The personal, subjective visions that make up its whole are a sign of life in the twenty-first century, for place and time have always shaped works of art and their means of communication.”

Some of the contributions were quite funny:

I love me.*

I love scientology this much: [with a accompanying tiny double sided arrow.]

I made you a cookie, but I eated it.

I used to love you. Now I love my friends.


It’s irritating that I’m doing this because Yoko Bloody Ono has told us to… but I can’t help it because, Quentin, I love you so much.

Other messages were quite sincere:

I LOVE YOU! Dear someone who I meet someday. LOVE & PEACE. It’s all about the world.

I wish I loved you enough to tell you everything.

The dance floor is never the same without you.

I feel more like me when you’re there, than when you’re not.

My sweet grandma. I love you and miss you so very much, I am eating lots of chocolate because the little Indian lady at the corner shop reminds me of you.

All these lyrics. Moments between us. Shadows on the blinds, mixed together with your taste. This is how I love you right now.

Now I don’t think I’m really excited enough about conceptual art to write anything particularly profound about it. But I have one opinion. If your artwork is nothing but an idea, it really should be an idea that people engage with.

If people look at The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and think ‘that shark is looking a bit fishy’, the artwork isn’t too successful.

I really liked Secret Piece III. People were obviously enjoying engaging with it, and the things people had to say about love were an interesting contribution to an exhibition that showcased many different types of emotion.

But what did I write on the love wall?

On behalf of Lydia and Pete (who are probably still skulking around AGNSW waiting for Yoko’s call):


*Other ‘I love [blank]’ comments: dogs, cats, my cat, ‘Marco the string zebra’, shoes, cheese blend and ‘be bop’.

I got to London from Brighton at about midday on Wednesday, hoping to find a ticket to Don Giovanni that night. The Royal Opera website indicates that cheap returned tickets are available four hours before the performance, so I went along at three to try and get one after checking into my hotel. I didn’t have much luck. Apparently these are actually called standby tickets and while they theoretically exist the box office never has any to sell. Returned tickets are sold at the original price as soon as they come back. He said I would have a good chance of getting something if I came back at about six, as they usually got a few last minute returns. Or he said I could wait underneath the white banner (he pointed to the side of the corridor) and he would call me back when anything came in.

I decided not to loiter in the hallway for hours and instead walked over to the National Gallery to spend some quality time with Cézanne and Manet. The National Gallery is a magical place. I was just wandering around for what I thought was just a little while, but when I looked at my watch I had been there for two and a half hours and had to head back to Covent Garden.

National Gallery

Back at the box office a very nice woman told me that the cheapest returned ticket she had was a hundred and ninety pounds. I told her that I couldn’t quite spend that much and considered waiting with the little group of desperate looking people with backpacks that had congregated under the white banner (clearly they didn’t have a hundred and ninety pounds either). But I smiled and thanked her and said “That’s such a pity. I was so looking forward to seeing it.”

I’ve found over the past few days that grovelling to box office staff is well worth the effort. She tutted sympathetically and said she could take another look.

“No, no, no. Wait. Do you have twelve pounds fifty? I can see a standing room ticket here for you that just came in. It’s a very good place to stand too, no poles.”

So I thanked her profusely and bought the ticket. Although she did seem a little surprised that my name was already in the ROH database. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t overdo the ‘poor cultureless guttersnipe from the colonies’ act.

Before the performance an announcement was made:

“Unfortunately, Marina Poplavskaya is recovering from a severe respiratory infection [collective groan]. We are delighted that she will still be performing the role of Donna Anna [audience cheers], but she asks for your understanding. [slightly less audible groan].”

Opera audiences are funny. I didn’t notice any weakness in Poplavskaya’s voice, but I can imagine how difficult it must be as a singer to make the decision whether or not to perform when you don’t feel your voice is at its best.

The current cast:

Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen
Donna Anna: Marina Poplavskaya
Don Giovanni: Simon Keenlyside
Commendatore: Eric Halfvarson
Don Ottavio: Ramon Vargas
Donna Elvira: Joyce DiDonato
Zerlina: Miah Persson
Masetto: Robert Gleadow

(Conducted by Charles Mackerras)

It was a wonderful performance. Usually my favourite part of Don Giovanni is Donna Elvira’s ‘Ah, Chi Mi Dice Mai’ in the first act (and DiDonato sung it very well), but at this performance I was completely blown away by Miah Persson as Zerlina. Her voice was incredibly strong and clear. Kyle Ketelsen was also particularly good as Leporello.

The bad thing about standing room tickets is sore knees. The good thing about standing tickets (aside from affordability, of course) is you get to hang around with some interesting people. Almost as soon as the curtain went up on the second half a man to my left started yelling ‘I want my seat! I always find a seat by the second half!’ and running up and down the aisle until he was forcibly removed from the auditorium.

The design of the production was traditional. Fairly static in the first half, but with plenty of stage lifts, flaming hellfire and swinging hands of judgment in the second. In that respect this production makes an interesting comparison to Opera Australia’s modern Don designed by Elke Neidhardt currently on at the Sydney Opera house. The OA production has modern costume and abstract sets (not a problem in itself), but with several cuts. So Don Giovanni, serial seducer (1003 women in Spain alone) does not refuse to repent in the face of commands from the ghostly spirit of the man he’s killed. He gets high and dies. These young people. They like the drugs. Apparently.

Unlike the OA version, this production kept the final sextet where the other main characters have a lovely little sing-song telling the audience to learn from the mistakes of Don Giovanni and be good. But just because a performance is faithful to the original score doesn’t mean it has to be too serious about the morality lecture at the end. After the final note in this production the curtain rose to reveal a devilish red lacquered box inside which Don Giovanni stood naked with a naked woman in his arms.* Heaven would be no fun for the Don.

Tickets for the first performance of Don Giovanni last week were sold through an offer in The Sun newspaper, all for thirty pounds or less. A bus full of page three girls was stationed at Covent Garden to hand out cast sheets. According to a report in The Guardian on Wednesday the young audience was more formally dressed than at those attending regular performances, better behaved (no mobile phones went off, there was no exodus at interval) and applauded the performance very enthusiastically. If readers of The Sun can enjoy a traditional unabridged performance of Don Giovanni, I don’t see why Opera Australia had to try so hard to make it relevant to modern audiences.

Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House

*More than one person has stumbled across this blog by searching google for ‘nude opera’ and ‘naked + opera’. Naturally I’m thrilled. With any luck this will become one of the world’s best blogs on nude opera. Although I’m not sure what sort of competition I have in this endeavour and I really don’t want to find out.


He claimed with dreary pride, ‘I suppose I’m real Brighton’, as if his single heart contained all the cheap amusements, the Pullman cars, the unloving weekends in gaudy hotels, and the sadness after coition.

Graham Green’s gang-war novel, Brighton Rock, gives you a slightly different view of Brighton to the Royal Pavilion. A hundred years after George the paint is still cracking, the dirty weekends away still dirty, but Green’s anti-hero Pinkie can’t rely on a Royal edict to sort out his problems.

The novel begins as Pinkie kills a man by choking him with a stick of Brighton rock candy, and follows his increasingly desperate attempts to take out the witnesses. Steadfast in his Catholic faith but resigned to eternal damnation, Pinkie takes the reader on a tour of Brighton’s underbelly in the 1930’s.

Cos opolitan

While I enjoyed Brighton Rock, some aspects of the narrative are a little trying. All female characters fall into two types: either bony, timid and manipulative or buxom, bawdy and motherly. Both types are viewed by Pinkie with barely contained disgust. It reflects the main character’s fear of women well, but was a bit difficult for me to read at times.

The novel has some really nice poetic parts, like when he’s trying to trick his wife into killing herself in a fake suicide pact: “He put out his mouth and kissed her on the cheek; he was afraid of the mouth – thoughts travel too easily from lip to lip.”

Green divided his novels up into ‘serious’ works and ‘amusements’. Brighton Rock was one of his serious novels. To me it read more like a good tawdry thriller, but I can imagine that for others the story of tested faith in Godless times might be quite moving.


I was interested to read that Graham Green is related to Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Louis Stevenson is everywhere.

I was told that going to the Royal Pavilion was the best seven pounds you can spend in Brighton. It cost me 8.50. Maybe it would have been more impressive at seven pounds. It’s the tackiest place I’ve ever been in my life.

More Royal Pavilion

In 1786 Prince Regent George IV came to Brighton to get up to some mischief (as would any young person with free time, a free spirit and a reliable line of credit). Buying a farm by the beach, he built the palace over the property’s existing buildings with wire, iron beams, plaster and rock. It seems more thought went into the faux Oriental design than reliable construction – almost immediately after it was built the abundant rain and sea air started to corrode the building.

Conserving the palace has been an uphill battle ever since, and it shows. Pieces of the exterior moldings are flaking off everywhere. Over the past 200 years the building has suffered from dry rot, rising damp, severe structural problems, arson attacks and even a piece of ornamental roofing coming loose in a hurricane and becoming embedded in the floor. The condition of the building is so bad it is said that palace is cursed, either due to the intertwining of snakes and dragons in the décor throughout (considered unlucky in Chinese tradition) or the debauched life the prince led here.


(Unfortunately it is not permitted to take pictures inside the palace – just imagine Disneyland  crossed with the interior of a Chinese restaurant run by someone who’s never been out of Essex.  Actually, that’s probably quite close to the design brief George came up with.)

George (king from 1820 onwards) became more reclusive as his weight ballooned and he developed dropsy and gout. I had thought that Dropsy was one of Beatrix Potter’s rabbits, but actually it’s a condition where one’s organs retain interstitial fluid and swell beyond normal size. Just as fluffy, not as cute. Next door at the museum and gallery there is a pair of the king’s trousers on display. They are magnificently large. Gout could hardly have a more stately home.

Even in his diseased old age he frequently spent time at the palace (although resigned to a more subdued and secluded existence) and took frequent baths in restorative Brighton waters pumped up from the beach. I’m not sure if Brighton’s waters still have many beneficial effects. Unless standing soap foam is any good for you:

Shells on a bottle.

There is something very fitting about the most famous building in Brighton being essentially a themed nightclub built by a bored and sleazy monarch. George kept the palace excessively warm to encourage guests to remove clothing, and installed excessively plush carpets to make guests unsteady on their feet. It’s no wonder Queen Victoria swiftly sold the palace to the Brighton and Hove city council soon after she became queen.

Here is the funniest thing I’ve read in a while:

Damien Hirst, conceptual artist (and White Cube YBA like Emin), responds to a bad review from Australian art critic Robert Hughes:

“He probably cried when Queen Victoria died.”

He may not know how to pickle a shark, but he’s at least got a handle on defensive retorts.


Tracey Emin is probably the best known of all the Young British Artists after Damien Hirst, and certainly the most famous female YBA. This exhibition currently at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is the first ever independently curated retrospective of Emin’s work.

Her trademark confessional style is most clearly exemplified in My Bed: a bed and collection of items around it displayed as an instillation – intended to be a frank snapshot of her life. The piece was nominated for the Turner prize, but did not win.

The one thing that I find quite annoying about Emin’s work is her use of body fluids in instillations. It isn’t really shocking and it certainly isn’t interesting. An artist must be pretty jaded if they think the only way they can move their audience is through repulsion. I suppose if you were interested in Freud it might be of use in assessing the artist’s stage of psychological development, but if you are more sane than all that it just marks the artist as manipulative and insincere.

What Emin has done successfully is develop a distinctive feminine and political aesthetic, as can be seen in her series of appliqué quilts, starting with a piece she compiled as a résumé listing places she had lived and quotes from her family. Like Damien Hirst she now employs assistants to construct many of her artworks, particularly the pieces in the quilt series (another contentious point for those who don’t buy the Warhol factory argument).

From the galleries I’ve visited this week in Edinburgh it seems that the Scottish are very enthusiastic about maintaining visitor books at art exhibitions. At the Impressionism in Scotland exhibition currently showing at the main galleries I saw a man get quite agitated waiting for a room attendant to bring him a working pen so he could scribble his (profound I’m sure) thoughts on Degas.

I took note of the two most recent comments in the visitors book at the Emin show:

“Margate has a lot to answer for.”

“Overrated. So you can make a collage quilt? No one cares. Stay in bed.”

Conceptualism really shouldn’t be that scary.
Earlier this year I was volunteering at an art gallery in Sydney where people would come and ask me in all earnestness if things in the gallery were art. With the emphasis on ‘art’ as if they might be some other mysterious conceptual thing. No ma’am, it’s a unicorn.

And these questions weren’t even about those weird humidity testing boxes people always observe so intently at the modern art gallery, but rather artworks clearly identified with plaques beside them. I wish people would just calm down about modern art. You can accept these conceptual installations without liking them. A lot of modern art is bad art.

The perfect antidote to the over-hyped Emin exhibition is conveniently located across the road in the Dean Gallery, the extension of the main modern art gallery holding most of the permanent collections.

I spent most of my time in the dada and surrealism gallery – a few small rooms full of lots of interesting paintings by Salvador Dali and Man Ray, Magritte’s only shaped canvas (following the curves of a woman’s hips and lower torso) and an extensive collection of Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculptures. Things that where shocking and different when they were created and still have the power to make you think in a different way. I’m sure people are still making that sort of art. Just maybe not Tracey Emin.

Tracey Emin – 20 Years

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art


Dean Gallery

Belford Road, Edinburgh

September 2008
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