The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
As a story of rebellious youth and doomed love Puccini's La Boheme has always had its admirers since it was first performed in 1896.
Loosely based on the stage version of Henri Murger's episodic novel Scenes Of Bohemian Life, and set in the then working-class quarters of 1830s Paris, this boheme is one where artists, musicians and writers struggle to survive in the lower depths of poverty.
The opera conjures an at times romanticised vision of life on the edge, in which the protagonists fall passionately in and out of love with each other and are always on the verge of a hissy-fit induced by artistic frustration.
It's a carpe diem world in which they'd sooner drown their sorrows in the cafes than pay the rent with the little money they have.
But their youthful insouciance is shattered when the spectre of TB intrudes. One of their number, the poverty-stricken Mimi, succumbs to the disease and the opera ends with her tragic demise.
Those contexts of poverty and deprivation are made explicit from the start in this exuberant and moving production by South Africa's Isango Ensemble, which transposes the action to a '70s township, drawing inspiration from its thrilling popular song and dance as it does so.
Adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May, it opens with a banner unfurled upstage with the words Youth Day, which every June 16 marks the 1976 Soweto schoolchildren protest against the Bantu education system.
It's an immediate signal that this version, in which the orchestra - dynamically conducted by Mandisi Dyantyis - is replaced by shimmering marimbas and steel pans and the setting - simply and effectively suggested by freestanding door and window frames - is firmly rooted in township realities.
They're present too in some spine-tingling choral sequences and movement motifs which propel Puccini's late 19th-century opera into the 21st.
The transition is not just an inspired creative idea. The Isango perfomers are drawn from the townships where TB is rampant and that certainly adds authenticity to the brilliantly realised and sung characterisations.
It really is invidious to single out performers in a work which is such an inspiring example of collective collaboration on libretto, score, dance and staging but it has to be said that Pauline Malefane as Mimi and Mhlekazi "Whawha" Mosiea as Lungelo (pictured) are magnetic throughout.
Isango's stated aim is not to present La Boheme as a glittering piece of musical history but as a plea for understanding and action around the issue of TB, Aids and other diseases that continue to devastate those still at the bottom of South African society.
They have certainly realised that in this production which, as a conscious-raising exercise through superb music theatre, certainly makes its mark.
And as a model of how to adapt grand opera and make it relevant to new audiences it's something of a revelation.
Runs until June 1. Box office: (020) 8985-2424.