The Summer Book: It’s There in the Title

Published by Kettle Magazine 23/07/2014

Despite recent thunderstorms, summer is – apparently – upon us, and so are a wealth of articles recommending the best summer reads. Depending on your taste everyone’s summer read is different, but for me, there is none better than Tove Jansson’s understated  work, The Summer Book. After all, it’s there in the title really, isn’t it?

Interwoven Short Stories

Tove Jansson was a Finnish writer and artist who unfortunately died in 2001. She’s probably best known as the creator of The Moomin Stories for children, but The Summer Book was reportedly her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults later in life.

A quaint, simplistic, and incredibly beautiful book, it charts one summer in the life of an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, as they retire once again to a small scraping of an island in the Gulf of Finland. The book holds together as a series of intricately woven chapters charting the long and lonely summer months, each of which can easily be read as standalone short stories, but which reveal far more when read together as a whole.

An Artist’s Child

Six-year-old Sophia wakes in the night at the end of spring, and remembers that she doesn’t have to share a bed this year because her mother is dead. As her father buries himself in work, her one companion is her grandmother who, although dizzy, weak, and none-too-steady on her creaking limbs, becomes the little girl’s companion as the seasons change and the island begins to bloom.

Isolated together in a cabin in the middle of the vast ocean, grandmother and granddaughter learn to adapt to each other’s whims, roaming the island together, sleeping under bushes, and creating one little girl’s wonderland to share between them. They spend hours in ‘the magic forest’ tidying the ground, they unearth a seal’s skull and turn it into an enduring summer sculpture on the beach, and as the nights fall and the sun never truly dies, they lay in front of the burning stove that has become the centre of their insular lives.

A Tale of Life

Beneath the simplicity of this novel, lies a life-affirming tale examining the birth of seasons and the death of those closest to us. Quite out of the blue during one of their many games of make-believe, Sophia asks her grandmother:

“When are you going to die?”

“Soon,” Grandmother answers. “But that is not the least concern of yours”.

Under the surface of their joyful summer escape, lies a wounded little girl and her aging best friend, each seeing the world through different eyes, and teaching each other how best to live. Within the pine glades and storm-tossed seas that batter the dark rocks into oblivion, is a whole new story of what it means to be too young and too old in one small family.

In a world where night never truly falls, the duo’s compulsion to never waste the daylight is infectious. At all hours they carve boats out of bark and swim in the darkening sea. Jansson perfectly captures the love the Finnish people have for the sun; a symptom of an island of people who live so much of their lives in the dark.

A must-read for the summer

But it’s the author’s unique mix of a mother’s humour, an artist’s concept of beauty, and a child’s innocent grasp of psychology, that makes The Summer Book one of the great forgotten classics of Scandinavian literature.

Indeed, the book has never been out of print in Scandinavia, and the allure of summer permeates every page. It’s a hard book to categorise, being not quite a work of fiction, not quite new age philosophy, not quite action-packed enough to be called an adventure novel, and not quite laugh-out-loud enough to be truly recognised as comedy.

Despite an inability to slot it neatly into a category though, it is something truly sublime. Tove Jansson is one of the great forgotten geniuses of 20th century literature, and to read this book is to fall in love with life, and summer, all over again.

If you read one book in the warmer days to come, make it this one.

Park Hill Flats Regeneration – Television Report

In the heart of Sheffield sits Park Hill, a 50 year-old, 1,000 flat ‘mega-structure’ originally built as one of the UK’s largest social housing projects. Now, it’s largely uninhabited, despite the council’s efforts to re-populate the building. We speak to residents old and new, about life in the largest Grade II listed structure in Europe, and the controversial re-development that’s seen life-long residents evicted from their homes.


On-screen reporter: Rachael Venables

Research, interviews, filming and editing by Laura Elliott, Rachael Venables, Julia Rodriguez, Terry Wangari and Eleanor Kumar.

One Man, Two Guvnors: Tour Review

Published by Kettle Mag 21/05/2014

The National Theatre’s acclaimed comedy One Man, Two Guvnors kicked off its UK tour at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield this week. Based on an old commedia dell’arte piece by Carlo Goldioni, the play is set in Brighton in 1963, and tells the hilarious tale of One Man – Francis Henshall – who, after being fired from his skiffle band, finds himself secretly accepting employment from Two Guvnors – Roscoe Crabbe and Stanley Stubbers.

More than a simple concept

Unbeknown to Francis, Roscoe is really Rachel, who is in love with Stanley who just happens to have murdered her twin brother, and to top it all off Francis must keep his double employment secret if he wants to keep hold of his next paycheck.

It’s a simple enough concept once you’ve met the characters, but in the hands of a stunning cast, and with the National’s directorial talent in the form of original director Nicholas Hytner, and tour director Adam Penford, this fairly formulaic play becomes a whole new beast.

Sheffield ovation

The second-night Sheffield show raised a standing ovation from the crowd at its close, and although by-and-large the cast is impressive, you couldn’t help but feel that the applause was reserved for One Man: Gavin Spokes as the ridiculous Francis Henshall.

Stepping into James Corden’s acclaimed shoes is no mean feat, but Spokes turns a somewhat hit-and-miss script into a series of deliriously funny monologues, that can’t fail to raise a laugh from even the most stony-hearted of theatre-goers.

His ability to interact, apparently spontaneously, with those members of the audience foolish enough to sit in the front row, resulted in infectious laughter which occasionally halted the entry of the next character.

But as the show roved increasingly off-piste, a somewhat unfortunate moment occurred when his monologue demanding a sandwich was interrupted by a member of the audience who was, unbelievably, brandishing a sandwich.

Obviously flabbergasted, and through his own laughter, Spokes replied incredulously: “This is a National Theatre Production mate, not a pantomime!” drawing roars of laughter from the crowd, and precipitating a hairy few moments in which the cast struggled to paper over the cracks.

Enjoyable highlights

Sandwich-bearing audience members aside, there’s a sense with this production that the choreography, actors, and brilliant skiffle band The Craze, often have to carry the script. The slap-stick scenes, involving Henshall’s attempts to wait on his Two Guvnors with the aid of an 83-year-old, comically juddery, pacemaker-fitted Irish waiter on his first day on the job, are a sheer joy to watch.

Michael Dylan as the perpetually shaking Alfie is sublimely funny, and Patrick Warner as Stanley Stubbers plays the pompous boarding school graduate to perfection. But the play itself is not perfect.

A few of the jokes fell flat, and there are instances in which certain characters – most notably, the bimbo Dolly – could have benefited from a different direction, especially when delivering repetitive lines such as “I don’t understand!”

Such instances are funny once, but increasingly less so the more repeated and over-acted they become.

A show of two halves

The first act is certainly the highlight of the play, culminating in a delicious denouement involving flames, spilt wine, thrown water, and one unfortunate woman being sprayed with a fully-functioning fire extinguisher. By contrast, the second act, although enjoyable and peppered with similarly-hilarious moments, doesn’t manage to capture the same momentum as before.

There are instances in which the script doesn’t quite match the high-calibre of the  performances, and some one-liners simply didn’t resonate with the audience. Even so,One Man, Two Guvnors is a truly delightful physical comedy, with highlights that far outshine the occasional moments that don’t quite hit the mark.

The show runs at The Lyceum until Saturday the 24th of May, before continuing its tour of the UK and Ireland. If you missed it in London then it’s certainly one to see on tour – just as long as you don’t mind leaving the theatre with an endearingly goofy smile on your face, and a sense that the ridiculous has just become the sublime.