Saturday, February 03, 2018

phantom thread…

I went to the Watershed again yesterday afternoon to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”. It harks back to fashion-minded London of the 1950s… where Reynolds Woodcock (brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis), celebrated dressmaker to the debutantes of Britain, is starting to feel the pressure from the ‘New Look’ and influences from across the Channel.
Like many elite artists(?), he is a man of strict routine – who, putting it mildly, doesn’t take kindly to interruptions to his daily routines. Peter Bradshaw in his review for The Guardian describes Woodcock thus: “A brilliant English couturier of the postwar age: fastidious and cantankerous, humourless and preposterous – and heterosexual, in that pre-Chatterley era when being a bachelor and fashion designer wasn’t automatically associated in the public mind with anything else”.
I found Day-Lewis’s characterisation of Woodcock totally mesmerising… and yet I also found myself utterly despising the man and his impossible, controlling ways (actually, despite this, I’m also considering buying a couple of hair brushes and copying his hair style!).
Woodcock meets, and falls in love, with a shy, ungainly German waitress at the country hotel where he happens to be staying. This is Alma (beautifully played by Vicky Krieps)(I absolutely fell in love with her!).
Woodcock sees in her a grace and beauty no one else had noticed, certainly not Alma herself. Dazzled, she comes to live with him as his assistant and model in the central London fashion house over which Woodcock rules with his sister and confidante Cyril (somewhat chillingly played by the impressive Lesley Manville).
Woodcock is the ruthless and selfish. Alma is shy and in awe of her wealthy lover… and yet her personality is stronger than you think.
That’s all I’m going to say… I don’t want to spoil things for you.
But you DO need to see this film – it really is rather good (slight understatement)!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

more january 2018 books…

Haunted (Edna O’Brien): I don’t read many plays, but picked up this book from the Last Bookshop (again!) and, given that its author was Edna O’Brien and that the description on its sleeve was somewhat beguiling, I thought I’d ‘give it a go’. I’m glad that I did. The play was first presented at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester in 2009 and featured Niall Buggy (Mr Berry), Brenda Blethyn (Mrs Berry) and Beth Cooke (Hazel) in the cast of three. It’s a sad, subtle, memory play about an aging (well, aged ‘about sixty’!) Shakespeare enthusiast and budding horticulturist (who names a species of rose after his wife – “sturdy, bears no scent and has remarkable thorns”!). Meeting the ‘bewitching’, young Hazel causes Mr Berry to reflect on the wife he has ‘lost’ and the child he never had. Rather beautiful.
Germany: Memories Of A Nation (Neil MacGregor): This is a truly brilliant, remarkable, inspiring book… written by the former Director of the National Gallery and the British Museum (you might have come across MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”?). It’s a superb account (complete with lots of illustrations and photographs) of the richness and diversity of German history and culture. The book covers an awful lot of ground (it’s nearly 600 pages long!)… people such as Dürer, Kant, Klee, Bach, Goethe, Luther and Gutenberg; art, manufacture and history such as the Bauhaus, the VW Beetle, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust (actually, as you might imagine, the list is huge!)… and yet MacGregor still manages to include the intricate and the obscure. Just when I’d been thinking that Germany’s story seemed to be almost entirely male-dominated, he highlighted the work and life of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945, a printmaker and sculptor - someone previously completely unknown to me), who he described as a “suffering witness” of the two World Wars. What he wrote about her made a great impression on me. Likewise, when he went on to describe the amazing way in which Germany has recovered after 1945 (“the economic miracle”), he emphasised the vital role played by women (“trümmerfrauen”: rubble women who cleared the streets of bomb debris)… a truly astonishing story. This, in turn, reminded me that I used to play on bomb-sites as a child and also, when I visited Dresden on business some 25 years ago, how surprised I was to see that a number of Dresden’s bomb-sites still hadn’t been cleared. It’s brilliantly researched and presented book… one that shines a light on the country’s many wonderful achievements, but also one that isn’t afraid to address horrors of its past. In some ways, I also found it a sobering reflection on Britain’s depressing Brexit vote… we effectively turning on our back on Europe, while Germany is facing the future with openness and confidence as one of the key players in the heart of the EU. Inspiring stuff. I probably won’t read a better book all year.   
Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 (Naoki Higashida): This is a pretty amazing book about autism, written from the perspective of a young adult. Higashida, a very gifted young man, was diagnosed with severe (‘full-on’ in his words), non-verbal autism when he was five (he was born 1992) and subsequently learnt to communicate using a handmade alphabet grid and began to write poems and short stories (I won’t go into any details here). Renowned author David Mitchell (who himself has a young autistic son) provides a helpful, illuminating introduction to the book (outlining his family’s own frustrations with coping with autism). Higashida is the first to admit that every autistic person’s experience is different (I worked with some ‘mildly’ autistic children – who were in mainstream education - during my time assisting in a secondary school). The book contains lots of short chapters which shed light on a whole range of things (based on Higashida’s experiences, at least) – for instance: why he banged his head on the floor; why there were phases when his clothes felt uncomfortable; why he would be seized with fits of laughter or fury or tears without apparent reason etc etc. We have a 12 year-old grandson, Mikey, who’s autistic (he also has Down’s Syndrome… which complicates things still further for him and his parents) and, whilst I struggle to get my head around all (or even some) of the issues involved, the book has helped me to appreciate a different way of thinking about autism… and a little of what Mikey’s world might be like (getting through daily routines without meltdowns? nurturing motivation? making choices? positivity about learning and practical skills?). The book doesn’t try to give any answers or provide detailed explanations (in fact, at times I found it somewhat repetitive), but it has shed a light on how poorly I’d ‘understood’ autism. An important, uplifting book.  
Peril At End House (Agatha Christie): First published in 1932 (my copy: 1950). Had been feeling pretty rough, so ended up having a ‘duvet day’ and read this as part of my get-well-quickly-therapy! Hercule Poirot provided suitable comfort reading… but, actually, I thought the book had quite a clever plot (that Christie woman may have a future as an author!). A woman has three near escapes from death (accident or design?)… then avoids a fourth attempt. But, hey, there IS a murder and Monsieur Poirot sorts it all out… in the end. Of course he does!
The Autobiography Of Margot Asquith, Vol 1 (Margot Asquith): First published in 1920 (my copy: 1936). This is a remarkable book (this first volume concludes with a diary extract from 1906) about a remarkable woman. Despite her privileged background, her passion for hunting and horses and the fact that the virtually all of her friends and acquaintances seem to have titles (ie. all the sort of characteristics I deplore!), I found this autobiography of Margot Asquith (1864-1945) absolutely fascinating. She was the wife of Prime Minister Asquith and lived at the centre of political events (although she didn’t involve herself in politics – taking no part in the women’s suffrage movement, for example), but from her girlhood onwards she numbered among her numerous friends and acquaintances most of the famous men and women of her time (the book contains graphic sketches of King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, Gladstone, Chamberlain, Rosebery, Balfour, Jowett, Salisbury, Tennyson etc etc). She was an exceptional, hugely intelligent writer with swift, shrewd analytical power, observation and wit.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

the final year…

I went to the Watershed again this morning (yes, this MORNING!) to see Greg Barker’s “The Final Year”… a documentary film about the Obama Administration and, in particular, his foreign policy team (the clue’s in the title!).
From the outset, I was aware that watching was going to be something of a torture… the entire audience knows the terror that awaits: the Trump horror show is about to start.
In particular, the film focuses on John Kerry (Secretary of State), Samantha Power (United Nations Ambassador), Susan Rice (National Security Advisor) and Ben Rhodes (Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting) plus, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama… and they all come across as caring, compassionate, principled, determined and devoted individuals (I was particularly impressed by Samantha Power).
Obviously, not everything related to foreign policy went swimmingly well over the Administration’s final 12 months (Syria remains a massive stumbling block), but there were some significant milestones, such as climate change, Cuba and the Iran deal.
The film largely avoided the count-down to the presidential election… but it was sad to watch the disbelief, despair, devastation and frustration of the film’s key players as the final result emerged.
Whatever one’s political background, I think it would be generally agreed that the Obama Administration captured a worldview, an attitude, an approach to international affairs… but, with Trump’s election, this has now disappeared.
I suspect that it would be very difficult/impossible to make an equivalent document at the end of the Trump Administration without Donald Trump insisting on taking on the out-and-out starring role!!
Overall, I found it an uplifting film to watch – a reminder that not all politicians have belligerent, nationalistic tendencies - but, at the same time, when the current President’s policies frequently feel as if they’ve be conjured up on his Twitter account on a daily basis, it feels only natural to be in regular state of despair!

Amid the ‘devastation’ (if you’re Trump supporter, I suppose the word would be ‘triumph’) of the election result, Obama was asked about his legacy… I thought his reply was both interesting and optimistic. He indicated that amongst his most powerful experiences/memories were his encounters with enthusiastic, dynamic young people throughout the world… and he felt that THIS was the thing that gave him the hope and confidence – that these focused, passionate people would be the leaders of the world in twenty or so years’ time.
Let’s hope he’s right… and that they don’t all become power-crazed and self-obsessed in the meantime!

Friday, January 19, 2018

the post...

I went to the Watershed again this afternoon (I know!)… this time to see Spielberg’s “The Post”, featuring Merryl Streep (as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham) and Tom Hanks (as editor Ben Bradlee).
You probably know the story - if you don’t, you’re probably too young (or perhaps you just don’t care about political integrity?). Either way, with President Trump currently in ‘post’, it comes as a timely ode to investigative journalism!

The film centres on The Washington Post’s battle to expose a massive cover up of government secrets relating to the Vietnam War that spanned three decades and for presidents (and, somewhat disturbingly, is effectively a prequel to the Watergate scandal – which started in 1972 and lead to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974).
It’s set in 1971 (the Pentagon Papers are a history of the United States' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, compiled by the US Department of Defence) and is a brilliant, stirring defence of press freedom. Of course, we all know the outcome and so we can watch all the drama unfolding knowing it’ll all-come-right-in-the-end! Streep and Hanks are predictably excellent in their respective roles (perhaps not that difficult, given the storyline?). It’s also a reminder about how sexist the world of big business really was in the early 1970s - again and again, Streep is the only woman in a room full of besuited men.
Essentially, it’s a powerful and timely film about idealism set against pragmatism… standing up for what’s right against huge odds.

This afternoon’s cinema audience thoroughly approved… and there was much mocking laughter when, at the end of the film, we see a silhouetted Richard Nixon pacing the White House seeking to use the authority of his office to hobble the free press – telling one of his underlings by telephone to exclude absolutely ANYONE connected with the Washington Post from the White House in future… oh the irony!
PS: Good article/interview with Steven Spielberg by Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

three billboards outside ebbing missouri…

Moira+I went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Martin McDonagh’s much-acclaimed film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”.
Essentially, it involves a feud between a grieving mother, Mildred, (brilliantly played by the wonderful Frances McDormand) and the local head of law enforcement (played by the very impressive Woody Harrelson). Mildred is at her wit’s end… seven months after the brutal rape and murder of her daughter and the police are no nearer to solving the crime… everything has gone very quiet and, with no leads, the police seem to have given up on the case. Mildred – who is very much a feisty, no-nonsense character - is FAR from impressed. So, she sets about provoking the local police with a series of messages plastered on three large billboards outside her home town…
It’s probably best that I don’t say much more about how things pan out...
All I will say is that it’s a brilliant, brilliant film.
McDormand is frighteningly convincing (and absolutely superb... both lovable and scary!) in her role and the community police leader Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) is also quite remarkable.
Moira and I were chatting on our way home and she described the film’s plot as “almost Shakespearean” and I think this is pretty much ‘spot on’.
It’s one of those films that almost defies description (ok, I’m not very good at summarising these things!)… it’s tough, brutal, tender, beautiful, compassionate, confrontational, shocking, dark and riotously funny… it deals with social division in modern America and yet old assumptions are amazingly overturned. It’s about changing attitudes and preconceptions. At times, I even found myself mentally imploring the film (is that possible?) not to follow a particular story-line…
The film is full of wonderful cameo performances (frequently harebrained!), laugh-out-moments, dramatic sensitivity… and surprises.
You just NEED to see it… it’s as simple as that.
Oscar to Frances McDormand… no question.

january 2018 books…

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (JK Rowling): My fourth Harry Potter novel(!). Whoever would have thought that young-adult readers (and adult readers for that matter) would be prepared to plough their way through a 636-page book of fiction? Certainly I would never have done so in my youth (actually, my default was to avoid reading books, full stop). But I was wrong… very wrong, obviously. Rowling is a quite remarkable writer – a brilliant story-teller with a remarkable ability of knitting together complex scenarios. I think this was my favourite Potter book to date – albeit that I felt there might have been just a few too many layers of plot and intrigue? Rowling is a very clever author and I now completely appreciate why the Harry Potter books have been so successful.   
Beyond A Boundary (CLR James): First published in 1963. I feel somewhat embarrassed that I’d not previously come across James – born in Trinidad in 1901 (died 1989), a novelist, historian, cultural critic, political activist… and writer on cricket. This is a rather extraordinary book (some critics have apparently described it as the “greatest sports book ever written” – I personally wouldn’t go that far!); it’s part cricket reflections, part autobiography… but with the spotlight on cricket in the West Indies and a penetrating study of pre-Independence West Indian society – how only whites would be considered as potential West Indies cricket captains; how British Empire values(?) dictated so much of political and sporting life at the time; how people with light skins were considered more culturally acceptable to those with dark skins etc etc. Quite shocking – especially as such views still predominated as recently as the 1950s. The book also included, amongst others, some wonderful chapters on Learie Constantine, WG Grace and George Headley. A fascinating book.
Have You Been Good? (Vanessa Nicolson): Another random book picked up in The Last Bookshop. It attracted my interest because Vanessa is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson… and I’d previously found “The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1963” (edited by Nigel Nicolson), which I’d read in 2011, fascinating reading. Vanessa Nicolson’s book is a memoir about her family and about her – made rather more interesting due to the family habit of “documenting everything” (including diaries and letters). She was born into an illustrious, privileged family. Her parents, Ben and Luisa - both art historians - had an unhappy marriage and appear to have taken very little interest or involvement in her childhood (she was an only child). Vanessa duly ‘took advantage’ of her disjointed childhood and reckless youth… including liberal boarding schools, early sexual experiences, drink, drugs, abortions (as well as the death of one of her own daughters, aged 19 – some of her daughter’s experiences seem to have mirrored her own). In the end, I found it a very annoying book! I only read it because of her family connections and ended up feeling hugely resentful (and perhaps a little guilty that I’d been drawn into her world) that she could end up ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ and make money by writing about her privileged background.
Andy Warhol (Wayne Koestenbaum): Another purchase from The Last Bookshop (£2.50). I thought it was about time I learnt more about Warhol (1928-87) and his work and so this biography seemed like a good idea. Warhol was a successful commercial illustrator, but began to attract recognition from galleries in the late 1950s. His works explore the relationship between artistic expression, celebrity culture, and advertising and went on to span a variety of media, including painting, silkscreening, photography, film, and sculpture (some of his best known works include the silkscreen paintings Campbell's Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych from 1962); he was a leading figure in ‘pop art’. I have to say that the book didn’t altogether impress me. Author Koestenbaum, who never met Warhol (but who somewhat incongruously, for me at least, referred to the artist as ‘Andy’ throughout the book), is a poet, cultural critic and ‘Distinguished Professor of English’ at City University of New York. He had comparatively little to say about Warhol’s paintings and silkscreens, but went into lengthy and elaborate detail in describing his films (which frequently documented gay underground and camp culture) and his New York studio, ‘The Factory’, (which became a well-known gathering place that brought together distinguished intellectuals, drag queens, playwrights, Bohemian street people, Hollywood celebrities and wealthy patrons). Of the ten photographs included in the book, only two relate to illustrations/silkscreens – the rest are devoted to film. I learnt virtually nothing more about his painting/drawing/silkscreening than I knew already.
The Poetical Works (Rupert Brooke): This is a collection of Brooke’s poems written between 1903 and 1915 (he died of septicaemia in a French hospital ship in the Aegean, April 1915). They include the famous ‘The Soldier’ (“If I should die think only this of me…”) and ‘Grantchester’ (“And is there honey still for tea?”) poems from 1914 and 1912 respectively. It seems that, in recent years, changing fashions in verse writing have meant that his work has been challenged by various critics, but I have to say that I do enjoy his poetry - particularly his later poems (but, hey, what do I know?!). In fact, my one criticism of the book is that Brooke’s poems (apart from unfinished ‘Fragments’ written during the voyage to Gallipoli in April 1915) are printed with the most recent poems at the front of the book and his early works at the back… so, in my view, it rather ‘peaks too soon’ – I would have preferred it the ‘other way round’.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

the environment, waste and us…

So, our Prime Minister has set out her 25 year environmental plan… in which she highlighted waste reduction as one of its cornerstones. All very laudable, but a) it’s all about vague aspirations and voluntary measures (no legislation) and b) won’t we have to act much more quickly in order to prevent environmental catastrophe?
I could comment at length on this but I think it’s far better you read this Editorial in today’s Observer.

Instead, I’ve recently been reflecting on society’s changing attitudes towards waste management, pollution and the environment and here are just three observations:
1.    Lots of us feel increasingly strongly about the amount of waste we create in our daily domestic lives and want to reduce this level to a minimum. I’m pretty committed towards this, but realise that I could do much, much more than I currently do (and have several friends who do very much more than me).
2.    Some of us are basically just too lazy to think carefully about what we buy, how it’s packaged and how we dispose of the waste products.
3.    In nutshell, many of us are just plain irresponsible and selfish (let’s leave it to someone else).
4.    On a slightly separate note, what I find utterly shocking is the amount of litter/rubbish that people simply drop as they walk around town or throw out of their car windows. I simply don’t understand the mentality of such people.

1.    Recycling has become second-nature for all of us. That’s clearly a good thing, but many people (and it appears that there are an awful lot of them!) simply couldn’t care and abuse the system and its rules.
2.    I regularly hear about people complaining that their main plastic refuse bins aren’t emptied ever week (ours are emptied fortnightly). I keep seeing large bins filled to overflowing and with extra plastic bags stacked alongside them.
3.    Once again, this is a reflection of people’s lazy and selfish attitudes towards waste. In my view, it’s incredibly easy to reduce waste volumes to a minimum by careful (and simple) recycling (I find it sad that much of the waste in OUR bin comes from unrecyclable plastic wrapping – it might not take up much space, but it’s not good for the environment). 
4.    Clearly, for some properties in our cities (eg. terraced houses with no front gardens), it’s often difficult to accommodate large plastic bins neatly/conveniently on street frontages but, by and large, people DO take care and deal with this in a responsible way.
5.    The main problem, it seems, arises with flats, apartments and bedsits (especially when existing houses have been sub-divided. Usually, there’s insufficient space for the multitude of resulting bins (and all their recycling counterparts). No one seems to care or be prepared to take any responsibility (landlords?) and so, frequently, you’re left with numerous bins being scattered in small front gardens or, all too frequently, on the pavement outside the properties (see photograph!).

1.    There used to be a time when all businesses had a responsibility for dealing with their refuse within the confines of their own premises. Not any more it seems.
2.    Walk round any city these days and you’ll find numerous instances of massive bins set out on pavements or at kerbsides… these bins ‘live’ there permanently. The rubbish inside them is duly collected (or not!) by private contractors.
3.    These large collection bins are regularly left full to overflowing and with rubbish left strewn over the pavement. This is particularly the case, it seems, for cafés, bars and restaurants… and frequently (because it would be very bad for their respective businesses for customers to see rubbish outside their own premises!), these bins end up being pushed next to someone else’s premises (see photograph!).
4.    Again on a slightly separate note (but one involving commercial business attitudes towards the environment), I recently caught an extract of Gregg Wallace’s television programme “Inside The Factory” (I think it was called). In the clip, goods were being stacked on to pallets ready for dispatch but, before leaving the factory, they were being wrapped by metres and metres of plastic film (they just kept winding it round and round each pallet) – presumably to avoid the inconvenience of the goods ‘working loose’? It was shameful example of ‘we don’t really care’ business practice. It doesn’t have to be like this, for goodness sake!

No doubt you could come up with loads of other examples from your experiences.
In each of the above instances, it seems to be a case of laziness or lack of responsibility or an utter disregard for common decency and appropriate behaviour or business practice. In days gone by, many of these issues would no doubt have been taken up (and resolved) by an environmental protection officer (or whoever)… but, of course, in these days of austerity – where funds are scarce and jobs have been cut – no one, effectively, is there to enforce things.
A very sad reflection on society - on our priorities, on our lack of pride and on our selfishness... or perhaps it's just me?

Thursday, January 11, 2018


I went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Jennifer Peedom’s 74 minute “Mountain” documentary film. I sat next to my lovely friend Sarah (and, if you think I go to the Watershed ‘quite a lot’ then, believe me, I’m just on the nursery slopes compared to Sarah’s attendance record!).
I LOVE mountains…
But mountains SCARE me.
Mountaineering books FASCINATE me…
But I’m PETRIFIED of heights.
The above just about sums up my attitude towards altitudes (anything taller than a double-decker bus is probably too much of a personal challenge).

But, hey, I just knew from the trailer that this film would include stunning photography (combining archive footage with new footage shot in 21 countries by legendary mountaineer/cinematographer Renan Ozturk), wonderful music (including an orchestral score drawing on Chopin, Grieg, Vivaldi and Beethoven) and Robert Macfarlane’s evocative text narrated by Willem Dafoe (Macfarlane is a long-time hero of mine!).
Well, I certainly found the whole experience quite, quite mesmerising.
Breathtaking images. Footage of brave/foolhardy/ridiculous(?) mountaineers and skiers (or ‘ski athletes’ as I think the credits described them)(‘between majesty and madness’) undertaking the most outrageous challenges; stunning, almost ‘abstract art’ distance shots of dozens of skiers threading their way down snow-covered mountains; cyclists on skylines; sky-jumpers (or whatever they’re called) launching themselves into the unknown; the wonders of the natural world – including erupting volcanoes.
Whilst much of the film showed beautiful scenery and fearless climbers/skiers/parachutists/cyclists, it also touched on the dangers and the tragedies… and also the commercialisation that mountaineering has become – with footage showing literally hundreds of tourist mountaineers trudging their way towards the foothills of Everest (“this isn’t climbing, it’s queuing”).
I know that, with Blue Planet television documentaries and the like, we’re all completely used to seeing stunning visual images of the natural world… but I was VERY impressed by Peedom’s film. Definitely worth watching (even if you’re scared of heights!).
PS: I was amused by a couple of handwritten postcards pinned to the Watershed ‘film review noticeboard’… one said “Mountains only get that big because they have no natural predators” and “Not as good as Jurassic Park” (I think the author pins this to the noticeboard for every film)!