Robert Butler

  • REREADING BARRY HINES

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, March 19th 2015

    The first time I read Barry Hines' "A Kestrel for a Knave" was in 1975; the second time was last weekend. Only 190 pages long, "Kes" has been a staple of the British school syllabus, so generations of pupils know that it portrays a day in the life of Billy Caspar, a skinny 15-year-old boy growing up in a Yorkshire mining town. There are flashbacks, but the overarching structure takes us from Billy waking up in the bed he shares with his older brother, Jud, to Billy going to sleep that night, his world having been wrecked.

    The backdroplightly touched inis the coal-mining industry of the 1960s: Jud has to get up early to get to the pit, Billy scraps with another boy on a coke-heap, and the Youth Employment Officer suggests Billy think about “the good opportunities in mining”. When Billy heads out to the fields, in a desperate search for the kestrel he has raised and trained, the sky has turned "charcoal".


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  • STOPPARD'S BRAIN WEIGHS IN

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, January 29th 2015

    It's nine years since Tom Stoppard's last stage play and 13 since his last at the National Theatre. As audiences enter the recently rechristened Dorfman Theatre, they are confronted by a steel sculpture—silver vertical poles and loopy curves—that hangs over the stage like a giant chandelier. In the first scene, this abstract representation of three pounds of grey matter will be compared to a map of the underground "with 86 billion stations connected 30 trillion ways, hard-wired for me first". It's been a long wait, but we are back in Stoppard’s universe.

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  • VAN GOGH: MODESTY AND MINERS

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, January 27th 2015

    “Blessed is he who has found his work”, wrote the Victorian moralist Thomas Carlyle. At 25, Van Gogh had lost his job at an art dealers, given up teaching, given up working in a bookshop and given up theological studies. Added to that, he had been turned down for one job preaching to miners in Britain and another job preaching to miners in Belgium. Nevertheless, in 1878 he went to the Belgian coal mines.

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  • THE ATOMIC BOMB ON STAGE

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, January 23rd 2015

    When the atom bomb eventually goes off in Tom Morton-Smith's new play, "Oppenheimer"—which opened at Stratford's Swan Theatre last night—it's followed by drunken celebrations. We're in the desert in New Mexico, where a bunch of physicists are lying in the sand wearing army uniforms and black goggles (above). The explosion itself is a blackout and a slow deep rumble, but the lights swiftly come up on frenetic dancing at a party. Soon after, we hear an appalling description of what happens when the detonation is repeated over the city of Hiroshima. If the play veers unpredictably in tone in the summer of 1945, losing its earlier assurance, that is no surprise: there can be few bigger challenges, in terms of dramaturgy, than introducing a weapon that kills over 100,000 people.

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  • ORWELL'S WORLD

    It is now 65 years since George Orwell died, and he has never been bigger. His phrases are on our lips, his ideas are in our heads, his warnings have come true. How did this happen? By Robert Butler

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  • RAPT BY HEATH ROBINSON

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, December 19th 2014

    When you visit Derby Museum for the first time (as I did yesterday morning) and stand in front of its most famous painting, "The Orrery" by Joseph Wright of Derby, what’s immediately striking is not the partly obscured model of the solar system, and the way the painting—whose full title is “A philosopher lecturing on the Orrery”—illustrates the enormous excitement around 18th-century ideas about astronomy. What’s striking is the depth of concentration on the lamp-lit faces of the adults and children. They are seeing how something actually works. It's fitting, then, that until next March the museum is exhibiting other extraordinary examples of how things work: 30 illustrations by Heath Robinson, who did so much to satirise the Edwardian mania for machines.

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  • THE POWERFUL ANTI-THEATRE OF 2071

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, November 7th 2014

    I’ve heard the climate scientist Chris Rapley speak many times. Seven years ago I interviewed him for this magazine (when he told me Sherlock Holmes would have quickly grasped the evidence) and, since then, I've heard him at conferences, in lecture halls, on panels and at dinners. Last night he appeared on the Royal Court stage, delivering a 75-minute monologue entitled “2071”—the year his eldest grandchild will be the same age, 67, as he is now. Here was a Rapley I’d never seen.

    A professor of climate science at UCL, the former head of the British Antarctic Survey and the former director of London's Science Museum, the Rapley I know is a busy, bustling figure, who appears at the lectern with smiling flourishes and an air of importance, and then turns frequently from the laptop on the lectern to the large screen behind as he works his way through a PowerPoint presentation. On the way in last night, I’d readied myself for the graphs where lines run along the bottom axis for most of the page and then suddenly shoot up at an exponential rate at the right-hand edge; maps of the world where the parts getting hotter now appear in lurid red and orange; and those pairs of black-and-white photos of the Antarctic which show how much ice there was only a few years ago and how much less there is now.

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  • CHEKHOV'S TRAGI-COMIC COLLISION

    Notes on a Voice: Robert Butler pinpoints a prose style as comfortable with fly-ridden grime as champagne and chandeliers

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  • ZINGERS ABOUT PHONE-HACKING

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, July 1st 2014

    The man in front of me, on the way in to see "Great Britain"—Richard Bean's raucous new satire about newspapers and phone-hacking—was the playwright Howard Brenton. In the mid-80s he had co-written (with David Hare) the defiant Fleet Street satire "Pravda". Following behind us was Tom Stoppard, who in the late-70s had written his own astute account of the fourth estate, "Night and Day". Last night's first night was also notable for the number of seats taken by people with a professional interest in the play. A few rows in front sat Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who had done more than anyone else to expose phone-hacking.

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  • THE NIGHT SKY ON TWO LEVELS

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, April 4th 2014

    When Eleanor Catton gives talks in public, which she did at the Union Chapel in London on Thursday night (and which she's been doing much more often since winning the Man Booker prize), she doesn't mention her mum. She knows her mum would hate that sort of thing. But she does mention her dad—which is how we know that he gave her a theme and an all-important link.

    Catton was talking to Robert Macfarlane, chair of the judges who last October awarded her the prize, in front of an audience of 750, plenty of whom were twice her age. During the time when she was writing "The Luminaries", she said, her dad, who was a lecturer in philosophy, was becoming increasingly dismayed by the "corporatisation" of his university (students were rebranded as "customers") and eventually he resigned. One of the major themes of her huge second novelwhich depicts the gold rush in New Zealand in the 1860sis "the capitalisation of the world".

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