JONATHAN AITKEN ON THATCHER

Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival at Queens Photo: © Michael Fisher

Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival at Queens Photo: © Michael Fisher

Jonathan Aitken spent over an hour regaling the large audience in the Great Hall at Queen’s with his insights into the political career of the late Margaret Thatcher. But perhaps more interesting were his anecdotes about the family life of the Thatchers, based mainly upon his three year relationship with Carol Thatcher in the 1970s.

Stephen Walker interviewed Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival Photo: © Michael Fisher

Stephen Walker interviewed Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival Photo: © Michael Fisher

BBC reporter Stephen Walker guided him expertly through his 700-page book,  Margaret Thatcher: Power And Personality, published by  Bloomsbury Continuum. This is one of the shorter works on the former Prime Minister and is some 200 pages less than Volume One of Charles Moore’s authorised biography ‘Not for Turning’, published after her death in April.

Margaret Thatcher by Jonathan Aitken Photo: © Michael Fisher

Margaret Thatcher by Jonathan Aitken Photo: © Michael Fisher

Extracts from Aitken’s work have already been serialised in the Daily Mail and if you want some idea of the stories the former Conservative MP told in Belfast on Sunday, fresh from appearances in Ilkley and Guildford, then you can read them here and here.

Audience at the Great Hall in Queen's University Photo: © Michael Fisher

Audience at the Great Hall in Queen’s University Photo: © Michael Fisher

From his first meeting with Margaret Thatcher when she was a junior shadow minister in the mid 1960s, during her time as leader of the Opposition when he was a close family friend, and as a Member of Parliament throughout her years in power, Aitken had a special insight into many of the public and private happenings in the life of the woman dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’.

Jonathan Aitken with his books Photo: © Michael Fisher

Jonathan Aitken with his books Photo: © Michael Fisher

Aitken told the festival audience that in her heart Mrs T was a unionist but her head told her that a political arrangement over Ireland was worth pursuing and this led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in November 1985. Just a few months after surviving the IRA Brighton bomb during the Conservative party conference in October 1984, she set up a back channel for contacts with the Sinn Féin leadership. Central to reaching the Agreement was the relationship between Robert Armstrong, her Cabinet Secretary and his Irish counterpart Dermot Nally.

Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival at Queen's  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s Photo: © Michael Fisher

From his unique vantage point, Aitken shed new light on many crucial episodes of Thatcherism, including her ousting of Ted Heath, her battles with her Cabinet, the Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, and the build up to the plotting within the Conservative Party that brought about her downfall. In this biography, Aitken has used material from his own diaries and a wealth of extensive research including ninety interviews with statesmen like Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger and Lord Carrington to many of her No.10 private secretaries and personal friends. His book conveys a fascinating portrait of the most influential political leader of post-war Britain, who was liked by many but also loathed especially by republicans in Northern Ireland because of her stance over the hunger strikers.

Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Jonathan Aitken at the Belfast Festival Photo: © Michael Fisher

Aitken has written a dozen books. In 1997 he lost his Parliamentary seat. Then he faced a charge of perjury and perverting the course of justice, and in 1999 was jailed for 18 months. He tells an interesting story about the time he left prison and soon afterwards received a welcome invitation to join Denis Thatcher for lunch at his London club.

Looking at Aitken’s own life story is also interesting. He was born in Dublin and Taoiseach Éamonn de Valera attended his christening in 1942. Aged four, he was admitted to Cappagh hospital for treatment for tuberculosis and spent a few years there in the care of the nuns as an in-patient until the age of seven when he was able to rejoin his parents in England (Wikipedia).

One of Jonathan’s twin daughters, Victoria, flew over from London to hear his talk and this was her first visit to Belfast. I hope she got to see Wish, the new face of the city, created specially for the festival, as she departed from the City airport.

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DAMN THE CIRCUS

Damn the Circus in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

Damn the Circus in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

One of my duties as a volunteer with the Belfast Festival at Queens was to attend the performance by Tumble Circus called ‘Damn the Circus’ at Belmont Park in East Belfast, which was on for two nights. The following weekend it moved across to the Falls Park in the West of the city, an example of the Festival organisation seeking to reach out into other parts of Belfast apart from the leafy suburbs of the Malone Road. I enjoyed the performance by the three members of this far from traditional circus.

Damn the Circus Tent in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

Damn the Circus Tent in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

This was not one of the events for which I was blogging. The volunteer that evening was Colin Hassard,  a Festival Ambassador, and I reproduce his review here from the BFQ Festival Blog page:

“The small-top in Belmont Park provided the setting for Damn The Circus, a three person performance of tragic-comedy theatre set behind a dazzling and distinctive display of circus and artistic spectacle.  From the opening scene of acrobatic strength, poetical monologue, and foreboding harp, we were aware that this would not be the circus as we know it.

As narratives of family, life and reality were subtly explored, the audience learnt how each performer aspires to something bigger and better, from joining Cirque Du Soleil, to working with Enya – all portrayed with comic frustration at their current situation.

Damn the Circus in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

Damn the Circus in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

The show was interwoven with familiar songs by artists such as Snow Patrol and Johnny Cash, yet these propelled the narrative and to have Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit eerily plucked by harpist Ursula Burns as the acrobats taunted gravity high above the stage, only added more tension.

Acrobats Ken and Tina clearly had a deep and trusted understanding, yet it was Tina’s solo aerial silk performance that provided a personal highlight. As she wriggled and twisted through the red curtains only to repeatedly tumble and be caught at the last moment, you could hear the audience’s gasps before their enthralled laughter.

Damn the Circus in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

Damn the Circus in Belmont Park Photo: © Michael Fisher

Damn the Circus was a unique and refreshing take on circus traditions and provided wonderful entertainment”.

Damn the Circus at the Belfast Festival at Queen's

Damn the Circus at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s

DERVISH

Cathy Jordan of Dervish  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathy Jordan of Dervish Photo: © Michael Fisher

Just back from a great concert by Dervish at the Elmwood Hall in Belfast as part of the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens. One of the highlights came at the end as part of the encore demanded by the audience. Cathy Jordan sang unaccompanied the ballad Slieve Gallion Brae, a song about a townland in the Sperrin mountains in County Derry, near Ballinascreen. Great that she was able to do so with the audience maintaining complete silence as they listened to her voice.

It is a song that Tommy Makem revived and one that Cathy reproduces on her website.

SLIEVE GALLION BRAE (traditional)

My name is Joe McGarvey as you might understand

I come from Derryginnet and I own a farm of land

But the rents were getting higher and I could no longer pay

So farewell unto ye bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Brae

As I went a walking one morning in May

To view your fair valleys and your mountains so gay

I was thinking of your flowers all going to decay

That grow around ye bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Brae

Oft times have I wandered with my dog and my gun

And travelled your valleys for joy and for fun

But those days are gone forever and I can no longer stray

So farewell unto ye bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Brae

Oft times in the evenings and the sun in the west

I roamed hand in hand with the one I love best

But the dreams of youth have vanished and I am far away

So farewell unto ye bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Brae

It is not the want of employment at home

That caused the poor sons of old Ireland to roam

But the rents are getting higher and I can no longer pay

So farewell unto ye bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Brae

Farewell to old Erin, a land that is so green

To the Parish of Lissen and the cross of Ballinascreen

May good fortune shine upon you when I am far away

And a long farewell to bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion Brae

BFQ: PHILIP HAMMOND BLACKBIRD

Cathal Breslin, Philip Hammond and Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal Breslin, Philip Hammond and Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

The imaginary musical trill of the blackbird filled the Harty Room on Sunday. Not the bird itself but rather the beautiful sound of the flute played so well by Sabrina Hu, accompanied by her husband Cathal Breslin on piano. They were performing a new work by Belfast composer Philip Hammond, entitled ‘An Londubh’, the Irish word for blackbird. It was part of the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and was staged by the Belfast Music Society as part of their Northern Lights Mini-Fest.

Cathal Breslin, Professor of Piano, University of Memphis  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal Breslin, Professor of Piano, University of Memphis Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal had the score stored on his iPad and with wifi technology was able to flick effortlessly from one page to the next. There was an interesting contrast with a similarly named piece (‘Le Merle Noir’ by Messiaen) which Cathal and Sabrina played first. Philip Hammond explained that his composition was intended as a companion piece for the 20thC Frenchman’s work. But his starting point was very different.

Philip Hammond explains his new work: An Londubh  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Philip Hammond explains his new work: An Londubh Photo: © Michael Fisher

Hammond told the audience that rather than the real birdsong, he created a fanciful play between flute and piano , with what he thought a blackbird might sing, if it was so inclined. The main origin of the piece is an ancient Irish air, arranged by Edward Bunting. It was published in the third volume of such arrangements in 1840. He has included it note for note at the end of the work, a fusion that works well. The other influencing factor for Hammond comes in the shape of a poem, written by Dr William Drennan, the United Irishman and friend of Bunting. Drennan wrote it in the grounds of Cabin Hill, near Stormont, when his sister lived there. There is a spot in the grounds called the Drennan stone where he is believed to have rested to seek inspiration. An interesting connection is that Hammond is a former music teacher at Cabin Hill, when it was the preparatory department for Campbell College.

Sabrina Hu  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal Breslin is from Derry and met Sabrina when they were both studying in Manchester. They are now married, with two young children, and are based in the United States, where Cathal is Professor of Piano at the University of Memphis, Tennessee. They have performed together internationally since 2001 in many of the world’s main concert halls. Five years ago they founded and developed the Walled City Music Festival in Derry.

Belfast Music Society Northern Lights Mini-Fest

Belfast Music Society Northern Lights Mini-Fest   Photo: © Michael Fisher

Their performance began with A Sonata for Flute and Piano by Poulenc, followed by a piece for flute by Ravel: a habanera, which is a  Cuban dance. Cathal who said he was always interested in the correlation between words and music then played another Ravel piece for solo piano, Ondine. There was a lovely mixture here of loud and soft notes. Sabrina played a piece composed by Debussy for solo flute, Syrinx, named after a nymph of Greek mythology. Then came the two blackbird pieces, with particular interest in the composition by Philip Hammond.

Cathal Breslin & Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal Breslin & Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

The second part of the programme consisted of a Brazilian traditional piece arranged for flute and piano: Choros. The duo followed with Piazzolla’s History of the Tango, a fascinating journey through time as they described it. The Argentine composer brought the tango from the world of the night club to the concert hall. The first part was set in a bordello around 1900, followed by a café in 1935 when the mood becomes more romantic and atmospheric, for listening rather than dancing. Part three is a 1960s night club when the tango merges with Bossa nova. The fourth and final part is set in the modern day concert hall setting of classical music. A very enjoyable performance.

AN LONDUBH: THE BLACKBIRD

Cathal Breslin, Philip Hammond and Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal Breslin, Philip Hammond and Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

The imaginary musical trill of the blackbird filled the Harty Room on Sunday. Not the bird itself but rather the beautiful sound of the flute played so well by Sabrina Hu, accompanied by her husband Cathal Breslin on piano. They were performing a new work by Belfast composer Philip Hammond, entitled ‘An Londubh’, the Irish word for blackbird. It was part of the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and was staged by the Belfast Music Society as part of their Northern Lights Mini-Fest.

Cathal Breslin, Professor of Piano, University of Memphis  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal Breslin, Professor of Piano, University of Memphis Photo: © Michael Fisher

Cathal had the score stored on his iPad and using it with wifi technology was able to flick effortlessly from one page to the next. There was an interesting contrast with a similarly named piece (‘Le Merle Noir’ by Messiaen) which Cathal and Sabrina played first. Philip Hammond explained that his composition was intended as a companion piece for the 20thC Frenchman’s work. But his starting point was very different.

Philip Hammond explains his new work: An Londubh  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Philip Hammond explains his new work: An Londubh Photo: © Michael Fisher

Hammond explained to the audience that rather than the real birdsong, he created a fanciful play between flute and piano , with what he thought a blackbird might sing, if it was so inclined. The main origin of the piece is an ancient Irish air, arranged by Edward Bunting. It was published in the third volume of such arrangements in 1840. He has included it note for note at the end of the work, a fusion that works well. By coincidence I am watching an interview on BBC1 Northern Ireland in which the composer and cellist Neil Martin (who wrote music for Carlo Gébler’s Belfast by Moonlight) explained to Marie Louise Muir how he also had been influenced by Bunting.

The other influencing factor for Hammond comes in the shape of a poem, written by Dr William Drennan, the United Irishman and friend of Bunting. Drennan wrote it in the grounds of Cabin Hill, near Stormont, when his sister lived there. There is a spot in the grounds called the Drennan stone where he is believed to have rested to seek inspiration.  Hammond is also a former music teacher at Cabin Hill, when the house was the preparatory department for Campbell College.

Sabrina Hu  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Sabrina Hu Photo: © Michael Fisher

BFQ: BELFAST BY MOONLIGHT

St George's Church Belfast Photo: © Michael Fisher

St George’s Church Belfast Photo: © Michael Fisher

Carlo Gébler Photo: © Michael Fisher

Carlo Gébler Photo: © Michael Fisher

No sign of the moon but plenty of atmosphere provided mainly by candlelight as Carlo Gébler’s new play Belfast by Moonlight was given its world premiere at St George’s by the locally based Kabosh theatre company. It’s the oldest Anglican church in the city in use and will soon celebrate its bicentenary, so it proved to be a very appropriate setting for a drama based around 400 years of Belfast since the granting of a Royal Charter in 1613.

In a recent interview with CultureNorthernIreland for What’s On, Gébler explained how the work evolved. He said artistic director Paula McFetridge briefed him not to write a dramatized history but to produce something personal, possibly involving music, that would work in St George’s Church, a play that would be true to that space. He has certainly fulfilled his brief admirably.

Belfast by Moonlight: Photo: Kabosh theatre company

Belfast by Moonlight: Photo: Kabosh

Attending a rehearsal of another piece that Kabosh had also commissioned, Gébler came up with the idea that the cast would all be female and would play the role of ghosts or spirits from the past. Each of the six was to have a significant event in their lives that had occurred in or around the Church. It was a concept that worked well.

The six 'spirits' from Kabosh (in middle) are applauded along with the Choir Photo: © Michael Fisher

The six ‘spirits’ from Kabosh (in middle) are applauded along with the Choir Photo: © Michael Fisher

Gébler says this is not a realistic play. But when the action reached the 20th Century period up to today, I found there were elements of social commentary that had also featured in Crimea Square, the community-led drama I had seen the previous night on the Shankill Road. That play had scenes including the glue sniffers and young people growing up in the era of rock n’ roll. Géblers ghostly spirits materialised at the start, resurrected from the grave to tell their stories in the chancel area of the church. They included a woman who had given up her two year-old son for adoption in the 1960’s and a young woman who was a drug addict.

The play certainly had an impact on the young drama students in the audience: fifteen from Banbridge Academy and another group from various schools in Gébler’s base in Enniskillen. One was particularly moved by the story of one of the spirits from the time of the Great Famine around 1845: Joanna I think she was named. The spirit represented a cottier from County Monaghan where she had lived in a mud cabin. Her husband had died from fever and she came to Belfast with her two young children looking for support but her story too ended in tragedy.

Choir: Belfast by Moonlight Photo: © Michael Fisher

Choir: Belfast by Moonlight Photo: © Michael Fisher

Around 40% of the play is sung by the main actors and the eight-strong female choir, with original music composed by cellist Neil Martin. The choir come from areas as far apart as Dungannon and Donegal. They were conducted by Nigel McClintock, Director of Music at St Peter’s Cathedral in Belfast and have been rehearsing under Emma Gibbins, Director of Music at St George’s.

Kabosh: Belfast by Moonlight at St George's Church Photo: © Michael Fisher

Kabosh: Belfast by Moonlight at St George’s Church Photo: © Michael Fisher

The actors are Bernadette Brown, Maria Connolly, Roisin Gallagher, Laura Hughes, Carol Moore and Kerri Quinn.  As the full moon rises, the six spirits they portray congregate to offer a haunting lament for Béal Feirste and to explore the rich past of the city..

St George’s is on High Street, where the River Farset used to flow. In the play, the rivers of Belfast are a recurring theme presented in song by the choir and the actors. The small rivers flow into the big rivers and the big rivers flow into the sea. Gébler has produced a chorus from their names: “the River Knock, the Connswater, the Purdysburn, the Ligoniel, Derriaghy, Colin, Blackstaff, Forth, Milewater, Cregagh, Farset, Lagan Navigation, the Ravernet”. For vimeo footage by NvTv of the Kabosh production in rehearsal, see here.

There is a stained glass window behind the main altar of the church with the Bible verses “O Death Where is Thy Sting/O Grave Where is Thy Victory”. Very appropriate for the six spirits performing in the Belfast moonlight.

The six 'spirits' from Kabosh come to the end of their story by moonlight Photo: © Michael Fisher

The six ‘spirits’ from Kabosh come to the end of their story by moonlight Photo: © Michael Fisher

Festival Guest Blogger  Michael Fisher

@fishbelfast

GÉBLER’S BELFAST BY MOONLIGHT

St George's Church Belfast Photo: © Michael Fisher

St George’s Church Belfast Photo: © Michael Fisher

St George’s Parish Church in Belfast is the oldest Anglican church in the city in use and was a very appropriate setting for Carlo Gébler’s new play, looking back over 400 years of the city.

Carlo Gébler Photo: © Michael Fisher

Carlo Gébler Photo: © Michael Fisher

It’s called Belfast by Moonlight but tonight unfortunately there was no sign of the moon. However the lighting effects (including candles) inside the church provided a suitable atmosphere for the dialogue and the accompanying music, provided by an eight-strong female choir who come from areas as far apart as Dungannon and Donegal. They were conducted by Nigel McClintock, Director of Music at St Peter’s Cathedral in Belfast and have been rehearsing under Emma Gibbins, Director of Music at St George’s.

Kabosh: Belfast by Moonlight at St George's Church Photo: © Michael Fisher

Kabosh: Belfast by Moonlight at St George’s Church Photo: © Michael Fisher

The play began with six spirits (all female) appearing out of the darkness, as if resurrected from the tomb. Each was from a different period, starting from 1613 when Belfast received its Royal Charter from King James I granting it the right to form a Corporation and extending up to the present day. The six are Bernadette Brown, Maria Connolly, Roisin Gallagher, Laura Hughes, Carol Moore and Kerri Quinn, all members of the Kabosh theatre company under the artistic direction of Paula McFetridge. Each spirit is connected in some way to St George’s: one got married there; the spirit from the 1960s has a two year-old son who was given away for adoption at an office said to be in the church.

Around 40% of the play is sung by the main actors and the choir, with original music composed by cellist Neil Martin. Where the River Farset joins the mouth of the Lagan rests the chapel of the sandy ford; an inhospitable place for a city. As the full moon rises, the six spirits congregate to offer a haunting lament for Béal Feirste and explore the rich past of the city.

The six 'spirits' from Kabosh (in middle) are applauded along with the Choir Photo: © Michael Fisher

The six ‘spirits’ from Kabosh (in middle) are applauded along with the Choir Photo: © Michael Fisher

St George’s is on High Street, where the River Farset used to flow. In the play, the rivers of Belfast are a recurring theme presented in song by the choir and the actors. The small rivers flow into the big rivers and the big rivers flow into the sea. Gébler has produced a chorus from their names: “the River Knock, the Connswater, the Purdysburn, the Ligoniel, Derriaghy, Colin, Blackstaff, Forth, Milewater, Cregagh, Farset, Lagan Navigation, the Ravernet”. For vimeo footage by NvTv of the Kabosh production at the rehearsal stage, see here. There is a great picture of the stained glass window behind the main altar of the church, which contains the Bible verses from 1Corinthians 15:55-56 : “O Death Where is Thy Sting/O Grave Where is Thy Victory”. Again, very appropriate when the six spirits are gathered at the altar steps.

There will be post-show talks on 23rd and 26th October with matinee performances on Saturday 26th and Wednesday 30th October at 3pm. There are no Sunday performances. This event runs after the Festival until All Hallows’ Eve on Thursday 31st October (Halloween). Tickets are £14 (concession £10) and can be booked hereBelfastFestival_2012Logo-thumb-540x560-98241