A Lit & Phil Carol – Review

A Lit & Phil Carol, November Club

7 & 8 December 2019

Memories of productions past, including The Novocastrian Philosophers’ Club and We Got Mittens Too!, had armed me for an ‘up hill, down dale’ exploration of the Lit & Phil’s nooks and crannies.

November Club, Cinzia Hardy’s energetic and enterprising troupe, has a fondness for keeping audiences on the hoof.

But the rows of chairs between the library busts put me right. Rather than a promenade performance, this was to be one in which the body, fortified by a seasonal brew, could let the imagination take the strain.

Writer Fiona Ellis took her inspiration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a miser learns the error of his ways. Setting her play in a library made a lot of sense.

Alice Byrne’s bright and expressive Narrator introduced us to librarians ‘George’ (short for Georgina) and Frank who, it transpires, are fighting an uphill battle to sustain a place whose soul is on life support.

Zoe Lambert and Jake Jarratt invested the pair with all the infectious enthusiasm at their disposal, which is quite a lot.

Quickly we were in their world, us oldies and the kids at the front. What to do about the boss, desperate Ebenezer Compendium, who wants them to work at Christmas?

Ebenezer’s late father understood about the magic of books and said even the boring ones, books about hinges and stuff (bound to be at least one in the Lit & Phil), could fire the imagination.

But Matt Jamie’s arid Ebenezer has an eye only on the bottom line. And it seems it’s sinking fast. Blow these books. Blow creativity. The librarians must put in festive graft and George’s large family must do without her.

Breezing through and away from this dour scenario goes Lavender Parenthesis, splendidly embodied by Clare Forsythe as a novel-writing adventurer in the mould of Indiana Jones but more intelligent.

The prospect of Compendium and Parenthesis being joined in holy matrimony (and what a double-barrelled moniker that would make) now seems remote. Will Sir Casper Grasper (Chris Gotts) land her hand?

As in Dickens, the story ended well thanks to a dash of the supernatural, both faked (those mischievous librarians) and real, as manifested in The Ghost of the Lost Libraries (Grace Kirby high on the upper walkway with an origami library on her head).

Stage smoke, a lightning flash or a zipwire would have added to the impact of the ghost’s appearance but possibly put the Lit & Phil at risk, to say nothing of Grace.

Once again November Club delivered a charming drama perfectly tailored to its surroundings. It also captured the uncertainty of the times. Only that morning I’d read of the 800 libraries lost during a decade in which the Ebenezers have been on the march.

A Lit & Phil Carol was directed by Cinzia Hardy with design and costumes by Imogen Cloet and paper-based designs by Bethan Maddocks.

Their endeavours went far beyond the series of performances. An enrichment programme involved schoolchildren and community groups and their creations can be seen in the Lit & Phil over the festive season. Bethan Maddocks’ and Imogen Cloet’s beautiful Christmas story tree really shouldn’t be missed.

David Whetstone


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Heritage Open Day

We’re bracing ourselves for a busy day today, with guided tours taking place and lots of visitors expected. We even have pink bunting outside the library – is this a first for the Lit & Phil?

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Book Blog #1

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of book reviews by members. If you have read one of our books and would like to recommend it to others, please send your thoughts to the Librarian, Kay Easson  (keasson@litandphil.org.uk) This review is by Chris Purser.

“A Curious Friendship – The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing”by Anna Thomasson.

I have always been a fan of English 20th century art, especially painters and illustrators like Eric Ravilious and Rex Whistler, both of whom died tragically early, as casualties of the Second World War.

One aspect of the life of the latter, his friendship with a woman more than thirty years his senior has always fascinated me, especially as the most recent biography of Whistler shed scant light on the matter.

All this is now made much clearer in a comprehensive biography of the woman in question, Edith Oliver, by Anna Thomasson, published earlier this year.

A cousin of the actor Laurence Olivier (her branch of the family dropped the second “i” from the original Huguenot surname), she met the artist in 1925, when she was fifty two, and he a mere nineteen.

In her own right, she was a fascinating character. She is described as “fiercely intelligent”, studied at Oxford, befriended Lewis Carroll, helped to found the Women’s Land Army in World War One (for which she was awarded the MBE) and was to apply her considerable experience and strength of character on the Home Front in World War Two.

Her meeting with Rex Whistler drew her into a different world, a veritable whirlpool of the intellectual elite in England between the wars. She presided in the centre of it, and the pages of the book reflect this.

Familiar names, like Cecil Beaton, Virginia Woolf, William Walton, the Sitwells, Bertrand Russell, and the Sassoons rub shoulders with less familiar personalities whose brilliance has faded a little – like the flamboyant Stephen Tennant, Lord David Cecil and the ultimate eccentric Lord Berners.

There is no evidence that this strange friendship “The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing” was ever anything but platonic, but deeply emotional and intellectually essential to both of the participants.

This detailed account is much more than a mere parade of personalities, the result of what must have been a prodigious feat of research, and paints a vivid picture of a world that straddled the intellectual elite and country house life in the inter war period.

The quality and readability of the book are doubly surprising, when you know that this is the author’s first book! She was mentored when writing it by Jane Ridley, one of the Northumberland family whose intellectual credentials need no stressing at the Lit and Phil!

Rex Whistler died in the advance after D Day, Edith Oliver survived until 1948, still writing and socialising up until the end. She never wrote her promised memoir of Rex, but this book goes a long way to remedy this.

She is commemorated by her portrait as wartime Mayor of the Wiltshire town of Wilton. Rex is remembered by his legacy of paintings and mural designs, but principally for the splendidly whimsical decoration of the tea rooms in what is now Tate Britain in London.

Go and see it, and pay tribute to a life cut cruelly short, but read this book first – and double your enjoyment!

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Two New Seasons

Yes, it’s official, summer is over and autumn is here. For us at the Lit & Phil that means getting into gear for our new season of events. We’re off to an encouraging start this evening  with Gail-Nina Anderson’s lecture on Manet – sorry, it’s sold out, as are her other lectures in this mini-series on Modern Art. Keep checking the website and Facebook for details of other events coming up and book early!

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By popular demand….

We had  some really good coverage of the Postcards exhibition in the Journal yesterday, and have decided to extend its run until Friday 28th August. It’s brilliant, it’s free, so don’t miss it!

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Books on Tyne – our Winter Book Festival

As we bask in the August sunshine our thoughts are turning towards  Books on  Tyne, our winter Book Festival, run in conjunction with Newcastle Libraries. This year it runs from 23-29 November.  Our line-up is looking good with the likes of David Almond (he is actually in the library as your Blogger  types!), Anne Fine, Sophie Hannah, James Oswald and actor and book collector Neil Pearson taking part. The programme will be launched in the autumn, so look out for it!

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The Postcard Returns

We are now into the second week of our summer exhibition, curated by Gail-Nina Anderson.
The Pleasures of the Postcard: Small but Perfectly Formed runs until  22nd August and it’s FREE so please come in to see it.

Following the enthusiastic response to The Postcard – a Voyage of Discovery shown at the Lit & Phil and at South Shields Museum a couple of years ago, this is a return visit with an entirely new cast of postcards. There are more local views, of course, but also monkeys and fish and touches of red and royal majesty and… well, the range is wide though the size is small. A chance to enjoy a fresh display of unexpected imagery, old and new, that just requires a stamp.

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Can you help? Reflections of Newcastle 1914-1918

Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18 is a Lit & Phil collaboration with Northumbria University, Newcastle College and November Club to explore the intellectual, cultural and social life of Newcastle during the First World War, concentrating in and around the Lit & Phil. The research will be developed into a city centre trail beginning and ending at the Lit & Phil through the creation of an interactive eBook. This eBook will be promoted to community groups, schools and visitors as a historical and educational tool and creative project to help people explore the city and its historical buildings and areas of interest in relation to World War 1, as well as the Lit & Phil itself.

We have now recruited a part-time Project Manager, Ben Jones, to oversee the project. We have also recruited several Lit & Phil members who are undertaking research alongside interns from Northumbria University on various themes, and students from Newcastle College are working alongside November Club on the digital and creative design aspects of the project. The work the volunteers and interns are doing not only supports the project but is enhancing and developing their research, creative and digital skills.

The eBook will be launched on 1 July 2016, marking the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme alongside installations and performances, by November Club, based on the research findings. Further updates on the project will appear as more and more information and material is uncovered.

If you would like to find out more about the project and opportunities for you to help, either as a researcher or in another capacity there is plenty of time. Please contact Ben Jones on bjones@litandphil.org.uk for more information on the project. His usual day of work at the Lit & Phil is Wednesday so please feel free to drop in for a chat about the project or email at any time.


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The Blog is Back

Now that our new website is live we thought it was  time to revive the Blog which has been dormant for some time…..

Details of our autumn programme will be coming your way soon, as well as more information about August’s postcard exhibition and our exciting First World War project, Reflections of Newcastle 1914-1918. Watch this space.

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Busy Thursday

It as been incredibly busy here today……two Literature Classes were running through the day, there was a meeting of the Seven Stories Writers and Artists Group, and tonight we have a lecture in conjunction with Newcastle College (the first in a series), as well as  the launch of the Brain Box exhibition. Not to mention the weekly meeting of the Recorded Music Society later. We’ve also had groups of students in, bookbinders and lots of other members and visitors! It’s all go!

The Brain Box exhibition is the result of a collaborative project in which over 40 individuals affected by Parkinson’s disease express their innermost thoughts and feelings by creating a piece of art work. The ‘canvas’ for their work is a small, white, wooden box and the media used include words, photos, textiles, drawings and everyday items. Inspiration came from artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) and the project and exhibition has been supported by Arts Council England. Come along if you can. The exhibition is free and runs until the end of October.

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