What is “The Hard Problem”?

Olivier Vinall (Hilary) photograph by Johan Persson

The Hard Problem, Sir Tom Stoppard’s first stage play since 2006, begins with what you have to call Stoppardian promise: a bit of dialogue that misleads the audience about its actual subject. We hear a 30-something man tell a 22-year-old woman”: “You’re looking at two years. The jewellery was under the floorboards. The police have nothing to connect you to the scene of the robbery.” But this … [Read more...]

We’re all wild about Harry: Paul Levy loves a Birtwistle masterpiece

Fiona Maddocks

    Sir Harrrison Birtwistle in conversation with Fiona Maddocks Like everyone who knows him, I sometimes call the composer, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, “Harry.” In truth, though, my acquaintance with him is slight – we first bonded in Mere, Wiltshire over a few bottles of serious red from the Northern Rhône, poured by our mutual chum, Robin Yapp, who had been Harry’s dentist before he … [Read more...]

Two cheers for Bollywood

Hiran Abeysekera (Sunil Sharma). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Though I have travelled in India often and extensively, I’ve not been since the economic liberalisation that has resulted in 71% of Indians having mobile phone subscriptions, as opposed to the 5% that had them ten years ago. This startling statistic comes from Sunil Khilnani’s programme essay for David Hare’s new National Theatre play, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” based on the book by … [Read more...]

Feminists have trouble keeping up with the Joneses

Allen Jones, Fascinating Rhythm, 1982-3

Fascinating Rhythm, 1982-3. Enamel on plywood. Allen Jones’s work is evidently too difficult for some people who call themselves “feminists” to understand. In 1986 a posse of deranged women (or a single loonie)  attacked his 1969 “Chair” with paint stripper or acid (Google-accessed accounts vary); and his work was pointedly excluded from Penelope Curtis’ 2011 Tate Britain survey of “Modern … [Read more...]

Remembering Tony Staniland

Tony Staniland was one of those hard-to-categorise, larger-than-life people who was a hero to those whose lives he changed, but who was modest about his own ambitions, and seems to have worked so hard simply because it gave him pleasure.   A physically big man, well over six feet tall, this philoprogenitive educator had six children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren by three … [Read more...]

Why you should give a fig


An invitation to a lecture about the “cultural” part of agriculture, reminded me how rarely we think about food and culture. Joining the usually* delightful set of foodie monographs called “The Edible Series” published by Reaktion is a volume called Figs: A Global History by my friend and colleague, David C. Sutton, Director of Research Projects at Reading University. Its tone is odd and amusing – … [Read more...]

Rembrandt Late Style: the Greatest Show on Earth?


Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669) The National Gallery London “Rembrandt the Late Works” at the National Gallery until 18 January (and at the Rijksmuseum from 12 February - 17 May 2015) is one of the great exhibitions of our lifetime. The NG must have called in every favour it was owed to have borrowed some of the finest paintings and works on paper of Rembrandt’s last years – the selection … [Read more...]

A Great Winter’s Journey at Oxford

Ian Bostridge This week I was present at the finest performance of Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, I have ever seen or heard. I am unable to review it properly, because I know both the performers. I have a profound and historic foodie connection with the tenor, Ian Bostridge, and the pianist, Thomas Adès, first signed our farmhouse guestbook in 1978, aged seven. The recital at the … [Read more...]

King Henrietta IV?

Henry IV

Dame Harriet Walter as King Henry IV by Helen Maybanks   The idea of an all-woman Henry IV (now playing at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London) didn’t much grab me. I gave a miss to the same company’s Julius Caesar and have to confess that I didn’t bother to read the reviews, even when it transferred to New York. But then the press night invitation for Henry IV arrived, and I had a … [Read more...]

Remembering Sally Morphet


My friend Sally Morphet was an immensely accomplished diplomat and academic; but those who also knew her in the company of her husband, Richard, former Keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery and Bloomsbury enthusiast, could not fail to notice her arresting resemblance to the tall, slender and beautiful Virginia Woolf. Sally died last April, and though there was an obituary fairly … [Read more...]