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    A one-man performance by Simon Callow is guaranteed to be a show-stopper, no matter what the subject. I remember being mesmerised by his monologue on ‘Shakespeare and Love’ many years ago at the Oxford Literary festival.

    Being a professed admirer of Wagner’s music (though not of the man) I was not about to miss the opportunity to get  ‘Inside Wagner’s Head’ through the medium of Simon Callow.

    The event is being staged through September  at the Linbury Theatre in the Royal Opera House as part of the bicentenary celebrations of Wagner’s birth.

    Callow did not disappoint. Aided  by an eclectic assortment of scattered props, ranging from a caged parrot to a coffin, he enthralled the audience for one and a half hours, taking us through the life of the most controversial , and arguably the most brilliant composer that has ever lived.  Whiffs of music – Wagner, Weber and Beethoven tantalised the senses, never quite resolving before it faded. 

    The trouble with Wagner is that much about him is so familiar that it’s hard to find something new to say. But Callow presented familiar facts so freshly that they surprised anew. And he did indeed manage to supply some information that I, at least,  had not heard before.  For instance I did not know that Wagner ‘never tried to lose his Saxon accent’, which Callow conveyed by a subtle hint of Cockney, whenever he quoted  Wagner directly.  Of course Wagner’s womanising is universally known, but it’s such an entertaining aspect of the man’s character that it bears repetition.  There is no better indicator of Wagner’s charismatic power over men as well as women than the fact that he seduced the wives of highly respected and talented men like Wesendonck and Von Bülow right under their husbands’ noses, living in their houses, being supported by them financially, even going so far as to produce two children with Cosima while she was still married to Von Bülow.

    Ever the subject of debate and much soul-searching for people like me, is Wagner’s  well-documented and rampant anti-Semitism. Callow didn’t dodge this, suggesting, among other things that it may have had something to do with his jealousy of the success of Jewish composers such as Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn in comparison with his own struggles and his frequently impecunious state, largely of his own making.  Interesting theory.  Wagner, Callow informed us, became swept up in the Germanisation of the German lands, hence his obsession with Teutonic myths and legends.  In combatting his own failings and justifying his own passions, Wagner had a whole ethnic group on which to vent his frustration. He regarded the Jews as foreigners, thus not capable of creating ‘German’ art forms. Sounds familiar.

    What Simon Callow omitted to say was that anti-Semitism was rife in Europe in the 19th century and Wagner’s views have to be considered in the context of his time. Not that it excuses him. In this respect he was a despicable little man – oh, yes, I hadn’t realised that he was small in stature either. 

    Callow talked about Wagner’s regard for the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who saw the world as a place of endless pain only to be mitigated by a renunciation of desire.

    Ironic, that. If there is one thing Wagner didn’t ever appear to do, it was to renounce desire. However, his last opera, Parsifal, reflects Buddhist, rather than Christian ideas: Parsifal kills the swan and is lectured by Gurnemanz on the sanctity of all life; the attempts by Klingsor’s flower maidens to seduce Parsifal in Act 2  are clearly based on the demon Mara’s tempting of the Buddha;  Kundry’s continual rebirth. Other Buddhist references flow forth throughout the opera. It’s Buddhism dressed in a superficial Christian robe.

    Callow reminded us that Parsifal was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer ‘s theories. He did not mention that Schopenhauer embraced Buddhist and Hindu thought in his philosophies.  It’s a pity Schopenhauer was also anti-Semitic , especially as this vile concept has no place in Indian thinking.

    Callow reminded us of a final irony. Although Wagner had initially objected ,  the first performance of Parsifal was conducted by Herman Levi – a good longtime friend of Wagner’s … and a Jew.

    I’ll leave Simon Callow now – go and see the production if you can. It’s fascinating.  Tonight I’m off to listen to another Simon  - Simon Schama, talking at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. I’ll let you know what that Simon says.

  2. This is the updated version of an interview I gave a few years ago:


    INTERVIEWER: Let’s start with how you came to writing. Did you always want to be a writer? 

     IRENE:  I’ve always written. I enjoyed writing "compositions" at primary school, and when my teacher said "you should be a writer" the germ of the idea took hold. Later I started to keep travel diaries and write poems. My poems were quite successful, but I realized that they weren't going to get me very far! I then progressed to short stories, and to my amazement I began to win some major prizes.

     INTERVIEWER: When did you realize that you wanted to write for a living? What were you writing at the time?

     IRENE:  I was a full-time teacher for twenty years. In 1998 I was at last able to stop teaching and start writing in earnest. At the time I was writing The Moon’s Complexion. I was also entering short story competitions to build up a ‘portfolio’.

     INTERVIEWER: Now, I'm dying to know about your books!

     IRENE:My first novel, The Moon's Complexion was published by Goldenford Publishers Ltd in 2005.

     INTERVIEWER: What is it about? I know we can read the summary on the back of the book or online; but I always love to hear about the book from the author themselves.

     IRENE:It is a cross-cultural love story about two people from different ethnic backgrounds, one British and the other Indian. They are thrown together in a very dangerous situation and discover that their paths have crossed before. As they travel through the book they discover truths about themselves and each other, and as they are faced with love and danger they are also confronted by their own limitations.

     INTERVIEWER: What inspired you to write about India?

     IRENE:I have visited, lived and worked in India regularly for up to nine months at a time since 1991 and the idea of turning my experiences into a book took root. As usual, I kept a travel diary, but I soon realized that India was something so extraordinary that it required more. I completed my Masters in South Asian Arts (a research-based degree) in 2005. This has been invaluable in informing and authenticating my novels.

    INTERVIEWER:Even though they are novels, is there a lot of fact woven into them? Most authors who write fiction tend to put a lot of themselves into their work.

     Yes, there is a lot of fact woven into them. All the locations in India, Sri Lanka and Britain are ones that I know well. Several of the experiences of my protagonists are based on my own experiences. For example, part of The Moon’s Complexion takes place during the 1990-91 Water Dispute riots in Karnataka. I was caught up in this rather terrifying situation in the same way as is described in the book. There are many other examples - the wedding, the mind-boggling experience at the elephant fair, the Buddhist retreat in Sri Lanka and the bizarre night-time crossing to a strange island palace: I couldn't have made them up if I'd tried, but in India you just take them in your stride. Outlandish events happen all the time!

     Did I put a lot of myself into my novels? Well, neither of my two protagonists in The Moon’s Complexion  is remotely like me. But the whole book is about places and concepts I love and feel passionate about. So in that sense, yes, it's all about me.

    My second novel, Darshan, though, is another matter. Darshan  is about an Anglo-Indian girl’s quest to discover her roots. In this book above all others I got right inside my protagonist, Sara’s, head in the sense of a ‘psychological’ though not actual autobiography. Sara’s life is very different from mine – she is half Indian, half Welsh, comes from a broken family and so on.  But her feelings of fractured identity, alienation, trying to fit into a ‘foreign’ society – mirror my own. My parents were refugees from Germany in 1939, and, like Sara, I am also somewhat of a misfit.  With Sara I have a very intimate relationship – total empathy – therefore the book had to be written in the first person.

    INTERVIEWER:Your newest novel, Noontide Owls, is a complete genre change, isn’t it?

    IRENE: Well, you say that, and yes, on the surface you are right. Noontide Owls is classed as a Young Adult Fantasy, which in one way is far removed from my previous adult fiction. However, dig beneath the surface and they’re not so different. All my novels explore social issues, cultural misunderstandings and the subject of identity. Noontide Owls is no different.  The idea came to me in the 90s when the Soviet Block was breaking up and tiny, re-formed countries were plunged into internal and international conflict. It seemed to me that once the heavy hand of suppression is removed, all sorts of nasty worms crawl out of the woodwork. Freedom brings its own problems. I wanted to explore this in a way accessible to young people as well as adults. Hence I chose to write a kind of parable in which it falls to the young heroine, 14-year-old Maara to try and bring peace among her country’s different tribes after the fall of a tyrannical regime. They are aided by a magic speaking book, various mythical creatures including a cat-faced camel, and, of course, the Owl.

     INTERVIEWER: Do you have a work in progress?

     IRENE: I am currently working on a non-fiction travelogue-cum-memoir of Sri Lanka, which I have been visiting since the 1960s when my sister lived there. My future plans include publishing a series of lectures I have been giving on Indian Art as well as my MA dissertation on Indian temple architecture. Fiction? I am waiting for inspiration to strike again. I only write when I have something that I am burning to share.

     INTERVIEWER: Where can readers find you on the net? Do you have a web site or a blog?

     IRENE: You can find me on – where you can also read my blog -  or on my publisher’s website . Of course, you can also find me on Amazon and many other online book sites.