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January 2017

It’s a wrap for another year for us Festies. We went to five shows and found three winners, one curiosity, and the fifth.

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In first place is Retro Futurismus. Whatever those Davy girls are on, there should be more of it! Followed closely by Ladies in Black. And showing, Measure for Measure.

That a mature Shakespeare plays came third is a surprise to us, too. But it was in Russian.


Ladies in Black was good as Goody’s should be. [The cognoscenti will get it, and hoi polloi won’t, and that is as it should be.]


Retro Futurismus is genre-free and sometimes gender bending it is. Vaudeville one reviewer called it, and that will do. It is a variety show with some singing, some dancing, some wall climbing, some aerial without a net, a singing slinky, some ultraviolet light, and some more.

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We found it amazing what can be done with bubble wrap, kitchen tongs, and house bricks. Strewth!

I am at a loss for words, except to say the next time Retro Futurismus puts on a show, I want to be there. The wit, the creativity, the energy, the bonhomie were all contagious.

Though I was intrigued by the description, i failed to list it when we consulted about our Festie this year. Why? Because it started at 09.45 pm, which is a good hour after I am in my pyjamas with a book in hand. But Kate said it was go, and so we went. She was right again. It was go!

We took an Opal bus each way and waited four minutes and nine minutes. The ride was twenty minutes. This I mention to indicate how easy and convenient it was.

During the United States football season I watch NFL games recorded on 7Mate. What an eye opener it is. No, I do not refer to the games, but to the advertisements, through which I fast forward at light speed. I try to do that but sometimes fail and when I do, I always regret it. Crass, vulgar, and stupid do not begin to describe the adverts, the products, and programs they promote.

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The advertisements are for a demographic I know not, and I want to keep it that way.

The products usually promise the earth for $9.99, Hair growth for baldness, travel around the world for nothing, free tickets to this and that, invariably spectacles, like giant trucks crashing into each other, I never heard of and am glad of it. Many of the commercials imply there is a secret to getting these things, which will be revealed for a few dollars. Thus there are secret tricks to get first class travel for a pittance. Many concern weight loss, usually by eating. The suppressed premiss that there is a conspiracy known to others is a motif in many advertisements.

To say that the appeal of these commercials is simple and simple-minded is the kindest thing I can say. The smart people who identify and target the demographic of watchers (gulp, and that includes me) decide to do it that way.

More revolting still are the other 7Mate programs relentlessly advertised in breaks during the games usually described as bigger, louder, longer, ruder, and ever more …[tiresome]. Invariably they involve men doing stupid things while chortling about it.

Here is a sample:

7 baggage.jpg 7 car 1.jpg 7 Car crash.png 7 cement.jpg 7 ice road.jpg 7 jousting.jpg 7 mega.jpg 7 Pawn.jpg

Among the more respectable examples include farting contests, with ignition, projectile vomiting with a feminine twist. (Don’t ask!) Others involve crashing into immovable objects either headfirst or in vehicles of some sort. Then there were the urine drinking contests. Many of the adolescents filmed in these trailers are old enough to know better. Animal house with scraggy grey beards and one hundred word vocabularies.

At times the programs that feature these deeds, also have audiences cheering them on. Believe it or not.

Many other programs involve automobiles being lovingly stroked. or guns likewise stroked. What is it about stroking metal? Well whatever it is, I don’t get it.

Other advertisements for programs involve sweaty men playing with heavy machinery. They are not working for a business but rather wildcatting on their own. Ostensibly they might be digging for gold: X marks the spot. But really they are just having a high-ho time with a gigantic earth mover.

There are also movie trailers and they come from the same stable. Blokes killing CGIs. Computer Generated Images that is.

In every case the text is aggressive, belligerent, loud, and limited. Everything is a fight, a war, a battle, a contest. All those couch potatoes love watching others go at it. Even an auction is covered as if it were a fire-fight, as only those who have never been in a fire-fight could do. The men in the trailers, and yes they are invariably men, are usually unshaven, unwashed, or wearing greasy clothes, or the trifecta.

A few years ago Channel 11 of the Ten stable, showed the games and it was the same there. There is nothing exceptional about 7Mate except that I happen to see it.

Yes, I watch NFL games. It is the only United States sport free to air here, so it is the one I watch. I would prefer the NBA. I have given up on MLB because the players seem to lack fundamentals skills; the games are over-managed; and the commentary is so diffuse, oh for Vin Scully who was always interested in the game before his eyes, unlike those I last heard who were bored silly by the game and preferred to reminisce about dinners past. Maybe they are personalities who are feeding the twits who follow their tweets.

A charming, enthusiastic, and altogether delicious memoir of life in Venice in the 1950s. It has an intimacy born of residence which goes into the details of everyday life, like rubbish removal, and the weekly shopping by dingy. Indeed, it includes many asides on the perils and joys of keeping a small boat for just such mundane purposes, and the surprising array of regulations and taxes that a humble, leaking rowboat attracts, watertight or not.

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The Venice of the 1950s is gone, but Morris is confident that as long as there are Venetians there will be a Venice. The gene pool is strong, deep, resourceful, and clever enough to withstand the tides and times, Morris opines in the 1996 introduction to the reprint of the book, originally published in 1960.

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The approach is almost ethnographic, as an anthropologist living amongst a tribe in the African savannah, he observes, notes, compares, enumerates, and ponders the meaning of what he sees, but with much more affable affinity than a Cambridge don in khaki kit roughing it for a few months in the jungle on the way to promotion. Morris spoke enough Italian to get to know the regulars he met, and enough to talk his way into some places not usually open to nosey beaks. He combines with those assets a keen eye and a tireless pursuit of detail that would satisfy John Ruskin. To these he adds a bonhomie that is hard to resist. Well, why resist it at all?

San Marco squarte.jpg A quiet day at San Marco.

Day by day over the months Morris weaves together many asides on the history that brought Venice to the current point; these accounts often take the form of lists. That might sound boring, but it is not. Consider the following example as one of many instances.

Here is Morris’s dictation while standing on the tiny balcony of the flat there was:

‘To the left is the palace where Richard Wagner wrote the second act of ‘Tristan,’ and just beyond is the terrace from which Napoleon Bonaparte once watched a regatta. Near it is the house where Robert Browning died, that Pope Clement lived in it, the Emperor Francis II also stayed in it, and Max Beerbohm wrote about it. Across the way at that point is the home of the Doge Cristolo Moro, sometimes claimed to be the original of Othello, and to the right is a palace once owned by a family so rich that it is still called the Palace of the Money Chests. At the corner is the little red house of the poet D’Annunzio wrote ‘Notturno’ there. At the Convent next door Pope Alexander lived in exile from Rome. King Don Carlos of Spain once owned the next house along. La Donna of ‘La Donna è Mobile’ lived nearby. Away to the right, is a palace where one of Byron’s paramours suicided.’

All of this lies within one learned glance.

That is both a comment on how compact is the core of Venice, and also, and more importantly, a comment on what a magnet it has been for the great and good and the not so great and the not so good over the centuries. Yes, Adolf Hitler met Benito Mussolini there in 1934.

Hitler Veice.jpg Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini

Followed shortly by Indiana Jones.

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Morris goes on to enumerate and describe the many watercraft to be seen in the lagoon from towering cruise ships to garbage scows, to vaporetti and gondoli, and in many cases goes into the etymology of the terms in part to show the polyglot past of Venice with its Arabic, Islamic, Roman, Teutonic, and Byzantine influences, turning the catalogue into a history lesson, spiced by Morris’s own experiences in dealing with many of the craft as either a passing boatman, or as a passenger.

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Venice conjures the gondola and Morris gives it due respect. Totemic though it is of Venice, there is no clear explanation of its origins, purpose, or use. Why does it have three notches in the bow? Why is it propelled by a pole and not an oar? Why is it painted black? While the number in the water has decreased by many factors, it remains in demand … by tourists. Morris offers a charming account of both past uses of the gondola and the occasions when contemporary Venetians make use of this clichéd but inevitable device.

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Like others who have written of Venice, Morris sees in it a deeply ingrained commercial imperative to make a living out of trade. Having no natural resources, Venetian has always been a broker bringing products to a buyer at a premium. The commodities that Venice can make a profit trading have diminished and disappeared, that is, all but one. The one commodity that Venice retains a monopoly on is itself, and so it trades on itself and does that to a T for Tourism.

Jan Morris.jpg Jan Morris.

Upon completing the book, I am not sure what to make of it. To read it is to envy the author’s mastery of the exposition. This writer could make a recitation of a telephone book interesting, and indeed, did so in these pages. In some ways it is a memoir of a world now gone. As Morris found even while living in Venice human intervention changed the face of Venice time after time with causeways, channel dredging, factory building, and more, and also the lagoon itself makes changes, eroding what were once residential islands into little more than hillocks of sand.

But the more Venice changes the more it remains exactly the same! Grasping and enchanting, mercenary and magnanimous, seedy and edifying, grotesque and elegant, universal and unique, quite unlike any place else.

We saw the Pushkin Theatre’s presentation of ‘Measure for Measure’ in Russian at the Sydney Festival. As homework, this inveterate student read the Folger Institute’s online version the morning before attending the evening performance. It helped a lot, having the major events and speeches in mind. The play had surtitles, which were easy to read, accurate to the play (as I recalled it from that morning’s reading), and also quick to keep pace with the action. Because I knew the play, I did not need to read every word of the surtitles, ignoring the players, to follow the action.

Originally classed as a comedy, ‘Measure for Measure’ is now canonised as a problem play. It is certainly serious as it touches on torture, rape, tyranny, hypocrisy, capital punishment, execution, and other problems that remain with us.

The Duke is tired of the responsibilities of office and curious to see what happens without him; off he goes on vacation, leaving Angelo in charge. Angelo is far more strict that the Duke, and becomes a scourge for Vienna. However, he is tempted to carnal knowledge by the beautiful and chaste Isabella. He will free her brother from prison and a death sentence if she will bed him. Her brother is guilty, by the way, of very same carnal knowledge of Juliet. The comic relief is provided by Lucio, a hanger on. There follow tricks and ruses in which everyone gets what they want, except Angelo, though he comes out of it pretty well. Most summaries refer to him as corrupt, and maybe he became corrupted, but he has a crisis of conscience at the beginning. He is no cardboard figure.

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One might say the greater villain, if villain there must be, is the Duke himself who contrived the whole thing as an entertainment for his jaded eye. He manipulated the whole situation, and plays on the characters in Acts IV and V like puppets. At the end Lucio is sent to be hanged for slandering the Duke, whereas in this performance, which has edited the play down to 110 minutes, he is sent to be whipped.

The play is indeed the thing. The production was marvellous. Full of energy and light. It ran straight through with no interval which sustained the momentum and energy. An excellent approach. Changes of scene were marked by a swirl of the characters around the stage leaving upstage those in the next scene while the others retired to the position of a chorus looking on and occasionally reacting. The actors were on stage for the duration. Costume changes were effected behind the stage props, four red block that turned out to be….

We particularly like the first dance sequence between a blindfolded Angelo and Maria as Isabella. The bass playing makes sense after a few minutes.

There is a trailer on You Tube at
There are also some interviews with the producers and actors discussing the themes in the play.

It surely took some courage to include a Russian language production in a large theatre in the Sydney Festival. There must have been wise heads demurring all along the way. Too risky. Too outré. Too complicated. Too hard. Too…… too. No doubt I would have been one of them. Wrong. Chapeaux!

How easy it all was. I could command to the iPad screen the authoritative text of the play when I chose to do so. No trip to the library or bookstore to find all the copies gone. I printed the tickets at home so no queuing up. The surtitles worked perfectly to bridge the language barrier.

Moreover, we drove into the Rocks, parked at the front door of the theatre, ate a good dinner a few doors down the street, and walked back to the theatre for the show. To go home, it took fifteen minutes from leaving the theatre to entering the house. For that evening Sydney was like small town. The more so since we saw some people we know in the crowd.

The book is an elegant and languid meditation on the city of Venice, the one in Italy not the one in California. It tells the story of Venice through thematic chapters rather than a sequential history. The chapters run ten to twelve pages, easily digestible in a sitting, and the segues from one to another and within each are smooth as the surface of a pond on a still day. Without a doubt the man can write. The book is replete with watery images, metaphors, comparisons, similes, and tropes. I felt moist reading it at times.

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A sample of the chapters includes; Origins, Trade, Refuge, Stones, Chronicles, Secrets,…..

Leaving aside a myriad of details, the heart of Venice was and is trade. It made itself an entrepôt for more than a thousand years. Having no wealthy terra firma, having no mineral riches, having no vast population, it lived by wit, barter and trade. It became the European end of the Silk Road. The merchants Shylock funded sailed into the Black Sea and along the Levant coast to bring back to Venice the luxuries of the East and sold them in trade fairs in Venice. The first Venetian carnivals were commercial expositions.

During its long ascendancy, when violent change was the norm in other polities, precipitated from within by ambitions or ideologies or from without by invasion, Venice remained stable. The city lived with the constant threat alta aqua, which made Venetians pull together, however much they grumbled, like no others at the time. Until Napoleon in 1804 joined it to the Italian kingdom he created for his brother it had stood apart from one and from all. Having no choice Venice reluctantly and slowly became a part of Italy. Earlier when Niccolò Machiavelli rhapsodised of a future Donna Italia he did not include Venice in it, and in this he was not alone seeing it as an enemy of Italy, not a part of it.

In Venice the commercial imperative reduced everything to a contract, and copious records were kept which miraculously survived despite many catastrophes natural and human that often destroy the past. Ackroyd has immersed himself in the dry and dusty ledgers when not walking the campi and picked out some very apposite instances for the reader.

Venetians were traders for whom the sea was the highway. They bought cheap and sold dear and on the margin prospered. Though the merchants were private businesses, their activities were supported, encouraged, promoted, and taxed by the commune as a whole. To specify, the ships were built and owned by the commune and rented to merchants complete with crews. There is a parallel here to George Pullman and his famous railway cars, which are treated in another review on this blog.

Because of the historical and ever-present threat of the water the communal spirt ran deep, and lasted longer even in the age of Enlightenment individualism. In Venice the whole comes before the one. Else everyone drowns. The comparisons to Amsterdam are many.

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Like many others he is impressed by the Venetian drive for order and regulation, the more so in the face of repeated Venetian corruption, extortion, embezzlement, and fraud. Shylock was the least of the problem for most merchants of Venice. Ackroyd is absolutely deadpan in the chapter called ‘Merchants of Venice’ in which he does not mention William Shakespeare and his Venetian play. If he did, I blinked. Earlier he does mention Venice’s most famous literary tourist, Gustav von Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s mediation on life and death ... in Venice.

Everything was put down on paper, moreover, everything was kept totally secret. There is the paradox, everything was recorded, included the energetic informing on each other that kept the authorities busy processing, but nothing was said. Ackroyd cites some remarkable examples of the ability of Venetians to keep secrets. They make all those Stasi agents in the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (DDR) look like blabbermouths. There are many, and to this reader, surprising comparisons to be made between the DDR and Venice in matters of secrecy, security, and surveillance and the high cost of such social control.

In the case of Venice the campi — the residential squares — made surveillance unavoidable even for those few who were not interested in spying on their neighbours, and easy for the great many others who were interested. One result is the hidden doors of many houses, so placed to avoid prying eyes. Another result was the mask and cape.

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Yes, there is a ‘but’ coming. The book is all trip and no arrival. Though each theme is treated clearly and simply, this reader lost impetus. Without a sequence of events the reader has no characters upon whom to focus or chain of events to follow. Of course, the author's choice to do that puts all the focus on the city of Venice and Ackroyd’s considerable powers of persuasion, and it kept me reading.

‘Doge’ is a dialect corruption of ‘duke’ and they come and go but none move the story on. Doges were invariably elevated at an advanced age, say seventy-two, and some then continued for another twenty years. There was an unbroken line of one hundred and twenty doges until Napoleon brought the Enlightenment on the bayonets of his army. The regime, in the terms of comparative politics, was authoritarian, oligarchic, patriarchal, and gerontocratic. That is for those who suppose labels are explanations. Napoleon, extracting a huge tribute from Venice, had the Golden Book of the Doges publicly burned. It was the genealogical register of the ducal families, the clan that sired the succession of doges, and its destruction completed the rupture with the past.

Venice was a republic; it did not have hereditary monarchs, though successful and powerful families strove for dynastic succession, and it did not have a feudal past in which a few owned the land and the landlord owned most people. The social strata were thus not the hard sediment they became elsewhere, but they hardened over the millennia. No gondolier ever became doge and no scion of the Golden Book ever poled a gondola.

Its foundation, existence, continuation, wealth, and stability depended on trade over the seas, and that trade required a great many skilled artisans to build, maintain, and repair the ships that were rented to merchants. The importance of these skilled craftsmen gave them more leverage in Venice than in many other comparable places. It is easier for the workmen at a single shipyard, the Arsenal, together to make their displeasure known than for an equal number of peasants scattered over vast estates to do so. See Gdansk in Poland for further confirmation.

The pages of the Golden Book represented about four percent of the population and the mercantile strata added another six percent, leaving the ninety percent out of the political, social, and financial elite. Those of the Golden Book tried hard to marry only within its own small ranks, and the merchants married their own kind when not trying to marry up. The total population in its prosperous times numbered about 100,000, more than it does today,

As with cities like Florence in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, the government of Venice was complicated and convoluted, by design, not by accident. When problems arouse a committee to act on it would be created and it would inevitably perpetuate itself in the first law of administration — goal displacement — revealed in 1957 by Philip Selznick in ‘Leadership in Administration.‘ There grew an encrustation of such committees with vague and overlapping remits, that never seemed to lapse. They often worked in ignorance of each other even when they had overlapping membership the law of secrecy applied. While laws were written, they were never codified and seldom promulgated and enforced only when necessary. It sounds very much like a university Department’s approach to self-government in the days when that was tolerated.

This open texture might seem to offer many opportunities for citizens to play one committee off against another, as is commonplace today in organisations, but not so in Venice, because the existence of most of these committees was secret, so secret that other committees with exactly the same terms would be created anew, and all of their activities were secret, too, including from each other.

Of course, there was no written constitution that spelled out anything. Some of that may remind a reader of working in a large organisation without an organisation chart, and no reporting. Yet everything is recorded. Ahem, see the passing remark above about a university department.

In a way, though prima facie more formal with its archive, it reminded me of the rule by talk in Colin Turnbull’s ‘The Forest People’ (1961) where every instance is treated as unique and talk, talk, talk until the antagonists prefer to give way than talk anymore, like those self-governing co-operatives in the 1970s where everything was done at all-staff meetings that went on, and on, and those who persisted eventually got their way. It was self-management by verbal attrition. Compared to this, McKinsey management looks better.

The Venetian mask a perfect metaphor for the pure city. It is ‘pure’ by the way because it had for most of its history no hinterland with apologies to Padua. It was all city and nothing else. While Florence had a rich agricultural land in its domain, where the Medici family raised beef cattle that still grace the plates of Italian cuisine, Venice had only itself and the lagoon.

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In Venice care was taken to be sure that the archivist was either blind or illiterate so he could not read the files, unlike Connie in the John Le Carré Cold War novels. The files might be sequestered but Connie knew what was in them despite the sealing wax. The files might be altered but Connie forgot nothing. Corporate memory resided in one sodden pensioner.

That passing mention of Padua reminded me that Venice has another connection with Machiavelli. Cardinal Reginald Pole who broke with Henry VIII spent an exile in Padua where he became aware of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and wrote a condemnation of it, though it is doubtful he read it. Since King Henry’s confident Thomas Cromwell had earlier spent time in Italy, Pole supposed that he learned his sins from Machiavelli. Association is poor proof of cause and effect, but this tenuous thread is woven into Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels.

Today Venice remains a city of trade, and its trade is with tourists who come to it as if the whole city is a continuous exposition. Venice remains an entrepôt and the product it mow sells is itself. The tourist Venice, the Venice a tourist sees is Venice, he concludes.

While Ackroyd's impressionistic tour refers to the mysteries and crimes of Venice the dedicated krimi reader turns to Donna Leon for detail.

Ackroyd mug.jpg Peter Ackroyd from the dust jacket.

This book is all trip and no arrival. It meanders here and there and Ackroyd is a superb cicerone.

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