“THANKS, EUROSTAR”

I went to Paris for New Year’s Eve (yeah, get me) and it was really impressive how nice Eurostar is to take, and how weirdly helpful the staff always are. Even more impressive right now, because a lot of things are making their jobs harder and none of it is really their fault.

Eurostar is the international high-speed train service that runs from London (UK) through the Channel Tunnel directly to France, Belgium and soon the Netherlands (an Amsterdam service starts this year). For now, all these countries are in the European Union, which has free movement for all citizens. Until something changes – like one of those countries officially leaving the EU – any citizen of a country with a Eurostar station has the right to travel freely to any other country with a Eurostar station. (This is different than the Schengen zone, which has free movement for all people, citizens or not; the UK is not part of Schengen, and may stop non-EU citizens from entering the UK via the EU if it wants to.)

One of Eurostar’s biggest selling points over low-cost airlines, its main rival, is shorter overall journey times. For example, their Flying vs Eurostar infographic, which shows “city centre to city centre” times: they argue that looking at just the flight time disguises the time and expense of getting to and from the airport, and having to get to the airport much earlier than the advertised flight time. Eurostar, which runs to city centre stations like the Gare du Nord and Brussels Midi, wants to give passengers a “turn up and board” arrival time as close to the scheduled departure time as possible, so that Eurostar feels as much as possible like a ‘normal’ train, where you can run and jump on basically right up until the doors close. For its highest spending passengers, Business Premier and Carte Blanche, Eurostar promotes a pre-departure time of just 10 minutes.

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“What has the EU ever done for us?”: Public communication in Hauts-de-France

These advertisements were in every train station I passed through last week in Nord-pas-de-Calais, the area of Hauts-de-France (Upper France) known for Agincourt, the Somme battlefields, and the Calais refugee camp. The ads are paid for by the Hauts-de-France regional government, and tell you exactly what the European Union has contributed to the area: €219 million for science and research, €100 million for business, €59 million for youth training. Even on the train departure board at Arras, the regional capital, there was a little sticker explaining “Europe engages [or ‘commits to’] Nord-pas-de-Calais”. I looked up the slogan later and the ads are part of an EU awareness campaign, “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” (“My Europe, My Everyday”), that the Hauts-de-France region launched today, 29 October: every Saturday, the campaign will go to a different town or city in the region, set up a stand and tell people about what the EU has done for their area.

I have been fantasising about how the EU referendum in the UK might have gone if local governments in England and Wales had run campaigns like this. I’m not even fantasising about a magically different result (j/k of course I am), but just about what it would have been like to have this kind of conversation, actually talking about the pros and cons of the EU, instead of vague gesturing about the NHS and business, and racist incitement about immigration.

Sometimes in the UK you’ll see a small EU flag on something that has received European funding. But I have never seen signs like this, and during the referendum, the Remain campaign never gave a clear, loud statement about the benefits of the EU instead of the risk of leaving it. The Remain message that I heard most was “It will be bad for businesses and London banks” – because post-austerity that’s really the message that resonates with people – and “Immigrants: sometimes not that bad really? (although obviously we all want less of them)”. Seeing the “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” campaign made me realise how frightened and small-c conservative the Remain campaign came across, and how far the conversation in England has gone away from talking about reality, instead of wishes: I have heard nothing from the Westminster government either before or since the referendum about EU science funding, community development funding, social funding… (I say England and Westminster because the Scottish government has been much more on top of this, and I’m not aware enough of the conversation in Wales and Northern Ireland to be able to say.)

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Book proposal: it’s out!

Book proposal

I’m excited to say my book proposal is now out on submission! This means it’s in as good shape as I (and, crucially, my agent Lydia, who knows What Book People Like) could get it, and now she’s sent it out to editors to see if any of them want to buy it. Some of them might be reading this RIGHT NOW which is quite nerve-wracking!

The book is about Shakespeare and the settings of his plays: what they’re like today, what Shakespeare would have known about them, and how stories can change the meaning and even the physical shape of places, and vice versa. Book lengths being what they are, instead of trying to write a very small bit about all 36(ish) plays, we went through and narrowed it down to the 12 plays and places where I felt there was a lot to say, and which make sense together. It includes the obvious biggies like Verona and Elsinore castle, but also some surprisingly rewarding ones like Navarre (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Inverness and Cawdor Castle (Macbeth). I’m excited to be exploring all of them. People in publishing say that early book titles are very likely to change, but I really like our draft title: Kingdoms for Stages, named after the Chorus in Henry V’s wish for “a muse of fire…A kingdom for a stage, princes to act”.

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The British Library

One of the most pleasurable parts of writing my book proposal has been spending an evening or two a week propping up a desk in the British Library, which is surprising, because when I was an undergrad, I HATED it here. I spent a horrific spring term at the BL nine years ago researching my dissertation, which for some reason I’d decided to write about accents and ‘corrupted’ language in 18th-century northern Irish theatre (attn 20-year-old me: what?). Most of the plays I was looking at haven’t been republished since they were first printed, for the outstanding reason that they are not very good, so I had to go to up to Euston to read them in first editions.

And the building was just horrible then – there was no natural light, the air was weirdly still, the cloakroom queue took forever, the chairs were too big, the tea in the cafe was so expensive, and everyone seemed to know what they were doing except me. (Had the physical building become a kind of focus point for all my dissertation-related stress, including about how I’d literally be kicked out of the country if I didn’t do well enough? Surely not.)

So I was surprised when I came back last year, renewed my card (“Er,  I’m writing a book-” “You poor sod. There’s a bar on the ground floor.”) and started a weekly date in Humanities 2, and it was lovely!

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Back to school

Berowne: What is the end of study, let me know?
King: Why, that to know which else we would not know.

I just finished a weekend at the Open Talmud Project, an annual community-run weekend aimed at Talmud study for everybody. It was a bit of a shock as I haven’t done Talmud properly for a few years, since my hardcore phase just after university when I was missing academia.

What I like best about Talmud study is that it’s very difficult lifelong learning that doesn’t have a point.

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Drunk Theatre: June-July 2016

I’ve been seeing so many plays and not writing about them! Here are a few.

Shitfaced Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice @ Southbank Udderbelly: I was so looking forward to this that I got massively shitfaced myself ahead of time, at my friend Ken’s birthday drinks, at a wine bar in the City, where another friend Jo and I had to – had to, for a tenuous reason I don’t remember very well – buy wine by the bottle instead of the glass. Anyway, I knocked back a litre+ of rosé and lost to Ken at pool several times, then tottered over the river to the South Bank Udderbelly and bought a double rum and tonic (“YES, WITH TONIC“) for £7.40, and waved it in front of the Shitfaced Shakespeare MC, who is responsible for keeping the show relatively on the rails. He also hands out gongs to the audience to ring if we feel the drunk actor is sobering up. I got a gong!

The interesting thing about “Shitfaced Merchant of Venice” was going to be how to do a weird tragedy with the structure of a comedy, which historically has been very hard to do without accidentally or intentionally being terrible about gay people, or Jewish people, or women, or black people, or…, in the style of Shitfaced Shakespeare, which is basically ‘loosely controlled anarchy, and booze’. It failed much less than I was dreading! (PR guys, you can use that on the posters if you like.)

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