Monday, October 16, 2017

september-october 2017 books...

Please, Mister Postman (Alan Johnson): This is the second of Johnson’s brilliant three memoirs (somewhat typically, I managed to read them out of order: 1, 3, 2!). He’s a wonderful writer – evocative, informative, self-deprecating, very funny and sometimes very sad. His is an incredible story… born in 1950; orphaned aged 12 when his mother died (his father had walked out); effectively brought up by his amazing older sister; passed his eleven-plus but left school when he was 15; worked for Tesco as a shelf-stacker before becoming a postman, aged 18. In the same year, he was married and became a father (his wife also had another daughter)… he went on to become General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union before entering parliament as Labour MP for Hull West+Hessle in 1997… and filled a wide variety of cabinet positions in both the Blair and Brown governments, including Home Secretary. This memoir essentially deals with the transition from boyhood to his time as a full-time Union official in the late 1980s… with all its responsibilities and time-consuming meetings and nationwide (and international) travel – which, sadly, resulted (at least in part) in the end of his first marriage. Probably, the best set of political autobiographies I’ve ever read. Very highly recommended!
Get Me The Urgent Biscuits (Sweetpea Slight): Moira bought this book recently on a whim(?) when we recently re-visited the wonderful Book House bookshop from our days living in Thame. It’s a memoir of an “Assistant’s Adventures in Theatreland”… how an innocent 18 year-old, with dreams of becoming an actress, arrives in London for work experience for a West End Theatre. She ends up being “stolen” by a formidable/demanding/eccentric producer (Thelma Holt), being re-named “Sweetpea” (her real name was Jane Slight) and continued to work for her for the next 20 years. As one might imagine, it’s full of amusing stories of her ‘adventures’ and the people met along the way… but, actually, for me, although I found it mildly entertaining (and somewhat informative about the workings of the theatre), it won’t live long in my memory! 
Velvet Elvis (Rob Bell): I first read this book eight years ago and, following a recent conversation with a good friend, decided that it was about time I read it again. From last time, I recall feeling incredibly disappointed when I realised that ‘his’ church attracted some 11,000 people to its three gatherings on Sundays (I’m very much a small, intimate, church community man, I’m afraid). Bell is a very good communicator (and very honest about his own spiritual struggles) and there were certainly several passages that resonated for/with me… however, overall, I came away feeling a little disappointed (not quite disillusioned, but…).
Days In The Sun (Neville Cardus): Another Cardus cricket book - this one was first published in 1924 (my copy was published in 1949). More wonderful, evocative, lyrical prose from Neville Cardus about cricket from a bygone age. All observations written in the early 1920s, but frequently making reference to pre-WW1 cricket and even cricketers from the 1870s (eg. Spofforth – “The Demon Bowler”!). All fascinating stuff (if cricket’s your ‘thing’!), like “it was June 1864 before the MCC legalised overhead bowling”; characters such as the England captain JWHT Douglas (no mention of Christian name, just his four initials!); calls, from certain quarters, for the game to be “speeded up” – like the article in ‘The Times’ in 1919 coming out with an “ingenious suggestion involving the banishment of the left-handed batsman because he interferes with bustle” (we might never have known the likes of Lara, Sobers, Gower, Pollock, Lloyd, Gilchrist etc had this been implemented!); and incidental comments such as the morning of a Roses match where, in two and a quarter hours (and in front of 26,000 spectators), Lancashire bowled 57 overs and 110 runs were scored – compare this to the current (I think) Test Match requirement for a minimum number of 15 overs to be bowled per hour! Somewhat predictably, I loved it.
The Broken Road (Patrick Leigh Fermor): This is the final book of Leigh Fermor’s trilogy (I’ve read the first “A Time of Gifts” (published in 1977), but not the second “Between the Woods and the Water” (published in 1986). They tell the story of his walk, as an 18 year-old (and on incredibly limited funds – he started off with £2 in his pocket and a tiny monthly allowance that he collected from post offices en route), from the Hook of Holland in 1933 to Constantinople. He never completed his third book (from the Iron Gates to Constantinople) but, on his death in 2011 (aged 96), he left behind an unfinished manuscript. The task to get his final draft published was undertaken by his editors and literary executors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper in 2013. It’s an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary, brilliant and very private man. Amazingly, he wrote the first two volumes from memory (he had his first diary stolen in Munich and his various letters to his mother were stored in the Harrods Depository during the war and subsequently destroyed ‘unclaimed’. He did however make some notes for the last leg of his journey. Leigh Fermor has a wonderful gift for description and an eye for detail (not to mention something of a gift for languages). It’s an amazing adventure at a unique time (just before ‘everything’ was about to change with the coming of WW2): the people he met, the places he saw, the background historical contexts he was able to highlight… and all written down, in great detail, decades after the events. The book finishes with extracts from Leigh Fermor’s ‘Green Diary’, written in 1935 when he explored Mount Athos (a mountain and peninsula in north-eastern Greece and an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism – containing some 20 monasteries) over a period of 3 weeks in 1935. A really wonderful book.

Friday, October 13, 2017

loving vincent...

Moira and I went to the Watershed this afternoon (my second visit in three days!) to see the much-acclaimed “Loving Vincent” film directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.
The Watershed’s blurb describes it thus: “The world’s first fully painted feature film brings together the paintings of Vincent van Gogh to tell his extraordinary life story – and every one of the 65,000 frames of the film is an oil painting, hand-painted by a small army of 125 professionals”. All these oil paintings are created in the style of van Gogh to provide a beautiful, animated end product – a truly magical, astonishing achievement… which apparently took seven years to come to fruition.
I’d previously seen some advance publicity and felt sure that the film would certainly be worth SEEING… but I didn’t know much more than that. Well, it tells the (imagined) story of van Gogh’s final days and his controversial death (a bullet wound to the stomach: was it an accident or a suicide?).

I’d actually prepared myself to be disappointed by the film (after all my prior expectations), but am very happy to say that I thought it was very impressive and very beautifully put together. I think my only reservation is that I feel that the film is in a danger of making the artist something of a celebrity cliché (or perhaps we’d already done this ourselves by our admiration and adulation?). In just a little over 10 years, van Gogh produced more than 800 paintings – that’s a pretty incredible achievement(!) – and it’s left me wanting to understand more about the artist’s life (and his work).

But back to the film… some of the images/frames worked more convincingly than others but, overall, I thought it was a really impressive film… and an astonishing achievement.
Very, very well worth seeing – you’ll be amazed!
PS: I’d chatted to Iris about the film a few days ago and said that I thought it was quite remarkable that van Gogh, who had died so young (he was 37 years old), had become one of the most famous artists of all time and yet he’d never sold a single painting. She immediately corrected me and said: “actually, Grandad, he sold two” (according to the film credits at the end, it seems that he actually sold ONE in his lifetime, but I love that Iris had a view about him!). x

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

tawai: a voice from the forest…

I went to the Watershed this afternoon (I was going to undertake a long walk to Ashton Court/Leigh Woods, but the weather forecast put me off). So, did I go to see Blade Runner 2049? Nope (especially after Jonnie Treloar’s recent negative review!)… but, hey, I haven’t even seen the original.
No, instead, I decided to check out Bruce Parry+Mark Ellam’s “Tawai: A Voice From The Forest” (you may well know Parry from his various “Tribe” documentaries on the BBC – although I don’t think I’ve ever watched any – in which he lived with indigenous peoples in an effort to understand their way of life). ‘Tawai’ is the word that the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Borneo use to describe their inner feeling of connection to nature.

Essentially, this is a film which looks at a deeper understanding of indigenous peoples and how their way of life can benefit those in the industrialised world. It’s a thought-provoking, poetic documentary (with some beautiful photography) – compiled from the forests of Borneo, the Saddhu of India on the Ganges, the Amazon jungle and the Isle of Skye – which explores what might have changed within the human psyche since we stopped roaming and began to settle. What can we learn from how nomadic tribes around the world live and how might this help us create more balanced ways of relating to each other and the natural world?
It’s a rather striking, sincere film – perhaps a little too earnest for my taste? Clearly, Parry has a great love and appreciation for his subject (plus lots of experience of living with nomadic tribes), but I was disappointed that most of the conversations (both with individuals from the various tribes and the ‘experts’) were all rather one-way, with Parry apparently unable to contribute to, expand on or question the things that were being said. Now, some of this might well be due to the difficulties of translation (but other documentary-makers have coped without undue difficulties) or perhaps it was Parry’s lack of intellect (I might be being rather unfair here?) or speed of thought? Either way, for me, the film’s message lacked a degree of clarity and emphasis.
It’s a fascinating film with a significant message: Tawai providing (in the words of the Watershed programme) “a powerful voice to indigenous peoples that demands to be heard before it is completely lost”… but didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

grayson perry: the most popular art exhibition ever!…

Moira and I were due to attend the preview night of Grayson Perry’s exhibition at the Arnolfini on Tuesday 26 September but, due to the queues, we decided to opt out – afterall, it’s a free exhibition and we can walk round it as often as we like between now and Christmas.
I love Perry’s work but, probably, most of all, I love his approach to his art and his wonderful ability to talk about it (and other stuff) in a brilliantly straightforward, engaging way. This quote from the exhibition programme sums it up quite nicely:
“Art can be intellectually stretching, moving and fun at the same time… People, on the whole, come to art exhibitions on their day off. They do not want to feel that they are just doing their homework. Maybe it’s time to take the sting out of the word popular. When I came up with this title – The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – I liked it because it chimed with one of my ongoing ambitions – to widen the audience for art without dumbing it down. Mainly I liked it because it made me giggle, but popularity is a serious business. Ask any politician.”

I love the way he frequently uses words in his work (eg. “flat whites against racism”!). I find his stuff funny, entertaining, profound, poignant, beautiful… and thoroughly thought-provoking. I’ve listened to his Reith Lectures, I’ve watched his TV documentaries, I’ve been to hear him at Colston Hall and I’ve seen his work at a number of exhibitions over the years - the first time he made a real impact on me was when we went to see his exhibition “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” at the British Museum in 2011 (yes, it took me some time to ‘get him’!). He comes across as just a really nice, ordinary bloke (if there is such an animal?), but there’s clearly far more to him that that (like "talented artist"!?).
He’s become a national treasure.
Whoever would have thought, say as little as 20 years ago, that an Essex-born, straight-talking transvestite would achieve a status such as this?
Of course, he has used his cross-dressing to his advantage – it singled him out and made him instantly recognisable within an art world that had perhaps become rather too predictable (I was at college with sculpture/artist Andrew Logan – not on the same course, I hasten to add – and was very aware of how used his appearance and style to mark himself out in a vaguely similar way)(at college, he decorated his room in the form of a country meadow - with the radiator resembling a sheep, plenty of blue sky and clouds and greengrocers “grass” used as his carpet!).
Although we didn’t actually get into Perry’s preview at the Arnolfini, we did see him mingling with the crowds – completely at ease with himself and utterly accepted (and adored?) by all who had come to see his show.
I think it’s quite brilliant how Perry has managed to challenge (in a gentle, amusing but determined way) prejudices that so many of us have perhaps harboured – and I very much include myself in this – on a whole variety of things. It’s not anything to do with him condoning people’s behaviour or characteristics or eccentricities or views, it’s just that he seems genuinely interested in finding out more about their circumstances and listening to their stories.  
It’s great that the exhibition will be at the Arnolfini for the next three months… I’ve been once thus far (and thoroughly enjoyed it – even though I’ve seen most of the pieces before - and just know that I’ll be dropping in on a regular basis to focus my attention on just a handful of pieces at a time (there is so much to see in every piece of his work).
Photo: A quick collage of various images taken at the exhibition (and, yes, it’s good that he’s perfectly happy for people to take photographs of his work!).

Friday, September 29, 2017

on body and soul…

I had one of those special, surprising, wonderful afternoons in the cinema today.
First thing this morning, I’d decided I fancied going to see a film (it had been perhaps a month since my last film?). All well and good, but the ONLY film at the Watershed this afternoon (and, as you know, I’m pretty sniffy about going to other local cinemas!) was Ildiko Enyedi’s film “On Body and Soul”.
Although the film won the top Golden Bear Award in Berlin, I was very nearly put off when I read that the action takes place in a Hungarian slaughterhouse and that audiences were warned that “there are some very graphic scenes of the various stages of animal slaughter”)… AND YET, it sounded intriguing:
Maria (wonderfully played by Alexandra Borbely) is the new quality controller at the abattoir and has mild autism, whilst finance manager Endre (again, brilliantly played by Geza Morcsanyi… and, amazingly, making his screen debut) is suffering with his own personal issues and a dead arm. Work is grim, but (thanks to a somewhat strange police investigation into a theft at the abattoir) Maria and Endre discover that they have been dreaming the same idyllic reoccurring dream (where they wander through snowy forests as deer!).
This might all sound rather weird, but it actually develops into a REALLY beautiful, romantic film.
It’s absolutely exquisite and I think, if you can stand the animal slaughter scenes, then you absolutely MUST see it.
It’s definitely one of my very favourite films of the year thus far.

Monday, September 25, 2017

end of another cricket season...

The end of another cricket season and, once again, sadly, I managed to watch only a few games (for ‘few’, read ‘three’!). Yet again, I find myself making promises that NEXT season, “I’ll DEFINITELY watch more games”!
I love the relatively gentle tempo of county cricket… being part of a tiny crowd of (mainly) old men who seem to spend most of their time talking about the ‘old days’ (although, to be fair to Somerset, they attract daily crowds of perhaps up to 5,000 whereas at the Gloucestershire game I attended a couple of weeks ago, there couldn’t have been much more than 200 people present) . I much prefer watching the four-day games (they used to be three-day back in my youth) to the one-dayers or the Twenty20 versions and, over recent years, have watched games at Taunton, Bristol and Birmingham.

I’ve been reading Neville Cardus’s wonderful book “The Summer Game” (first published in 1928 – my copy was published in 1949) – hugely evocative and very beautifully written. It’s conjured up lots of my own cricket-watching memories…
Growing up in Birmingham, the Birmingham+District Cricket League was readily accessible to us and I used to go and watch West Bromwich Dartmouth (just up the road from us) – starting perhaps in 1960(?). I well remember being mesmerised by watching Roly Jenkins in action (born in 1918, he was a talented leg-spin bowler who’d played for England several times)… as well as his bowling (and his age!), my principle memories of him were that a) he always wore his cap, even when bowling, and b) he always used to field at mid-on/off and, if the ball went past him (which wasn’t difficult), he used to let one of the other players run after it!
My early county championship games were at Edgbaston, watching Warwickshire. I’m pretty sure that my grandfather Fred was a member, but I don’t think he ever took me to a game. I certainly remember going to Edgbaston in 1960, 1961 and 1962… Warwickshire ‘heroes’ included MJK Smith, AC Smith, Tom Cartwright, Jack Bannister, Jim Stewart, Billy Ibadulla, Norman Horner, David Brown, John Jameson and Ronnie Miller (I once watched Horner and Ibadulla put on 377 for the first wicket). The wonderful thing in those days (which I very much regret in the current game) was that a) international cricketers were always in the county game (these days they rarely feature) and b) the touring sides ALWAYS played each of the 17 county sides (Durham have subsequently been added). I was fortunate enough to see South Africa, Australia and the West Indies play Warwickshire in 1960, ’61 and ’62 respectively – which meant that I saw such stars as Richie Benaud, Bobby Simpson, Neil Harvey, Graham McKenzie, Wally Grout, Jackie McGlew, Hugh Tayfield, Frank Worrall, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith (sadly, I don’t think I ever saw Gary Sobers).
These, of course, were the days before helmets for batsmen and close fielders – memories of MJK Smith fielding in his cap and bespectacled at short-leg, just a couple of yards from the bat… apparently fearless!

One thing I certainly regret these days is the fact that, with the massive increase in the number of international matches (five day test matches, one dayers and Twenty20 games), the county game has become very much ‘second division’ in cricketing terms – with current international cricketers only making intermittent appearances for their county sides due to their other contractual commitments (see footnotes at the end!). It means that county teams are largely made up of keen young players endeavouring to make their mark (which is obviously a good thing, but…); run-of-the-mill/average players who are never going to make an international side; or a few players who are perhaps on the cusp of international cricket – some having been discarded or desperately wanting to be given another chance and some simply ‘waiting for the call’. Sadly, virtually the only way to see the ‘star’ players is to go and watch the international games.

It’s very strange looking back… I well remember looking for the cricket scores every morning during the summer in my father’s Daily Mail (sorry!). I even recall the annual Gentlemen v Players matches (between professionals and amateurs, which were thankfully abandoned in 1963). I well remember the Annual Sports Argus Cricket Annual produced by the local newspaper at the start of each season (why on earth did I ever throw them away?).

When I was at college in Oxford (1968 was my first summer), I frequently dropped in to University Parks to watch (for free) the university play one of the county sides – at a time when the university games were given ‘first class’ status. After leaving college in 1973, I got a job with The Oxford Architects Partnership in Oxford city centre and managed to negotiate a ‘deal’ with one of the partners allowing me to have extended summer lunch hours so I could cycle to University Parks to watch an hour’s cricket. Imran Khan played for the university in 1973-75 and I have a memory of seeing him complete his double century against one of the counties (unfortunately, I can’t access any of the old scorecards without signing up and paying a subscription for one of the online cricket archive sites!). Journalist and BBC Test Match Special commentator Vic Marks also captained the university side in 1975+76.

Somewhat ridiculously, I’ve never been to a test match (I probably need to rectify this deficiency!), but I have been to watch a game at Lords. It was the University match between Oxford and Cambridge in perhaps 1998(?). At that time, I was a partner of Brocklehurst Architects and one of our employees, Mike Kennedy, was a cricket-mad Middlesex supporter (his only question when interviewed about working for us was “can you allow me to watch all the Middlesex games – home and away - during the cricket season?”!). Because he was a long-standing Middlesex CC member (and Lord’s is their home ground) and someone who appeared to “know everyone”, he obtained special permission for me to enter the hallowed Pavilion and get into the England (ie. home) dressing room, as it were… from where we walked down the main stairs (in my imagination, I was padded up and carrying my bat… obviously), through the Long Room, down the pavilion steps, out on to the outfield and then walk to the wicket! An amazing privilege that very few non-players receive. A very special cricketing memory.

As far as my own playing ‘career’ was concerned, I was just a pretty ordinary player - although I did captain our junior school team - I recall taking seven wickets at Handsworth Park against Grove Lane School on the day Princess Margaret was married (but she didn’t send me a congratulatory card!) and was vice-captain of the Handsworth Grammar first eleven. I was very much a utility player – reasonably gifted, but nothing special! I did get a trial for Warwickshire Schoolboys, but utterly failed to make a good impression. Indeed, batsmen were given two overs each and I seem to remember being ‘out’ five times in twelve balls – I don’t recall the bowler, but he probably went on to become an international superstar (of course)!! – and my bowling failed to take a single wicket. In my own mind, of course, I was a VERY accomplished batsman/wicket-keeper/leg spinner (remember, this was WELL before Shane Warne was born!). I also very much enjoyed playing cricket for my office (The Oxford Architects Partnership) in later years and we were very fortunate to be able play on a variety of wonderful Oxford College grounds – including the University second eleven ground of New College… where I scored my one and only half century (still no blue plaque!).  

So, today, I went to watch a division one relegation battle at Taunton (Somerset need to win to stand a chance of avoiding relegation). The last game of the season… Day One, Somerset v Middlesex. Lots of doubt over the weather… would it rain? The forecast wasn’t exactly brilliant, but I decided to risk it anyway – afterall, this was my LAST chance to watch a game this season. Would it be a momentous day when I see the burgeoning talents of future (or past) England stars?
I HAD been intending to watch the mid-table second division game at Bristol, between Gloucestershire and Derbyshire… but the weather forecast didn’t sound good (certainly worse than Taunton – but who knows with these forecasts!?). In the event, I made the right call… there were only 26 overs at Bristol due to rain and the wet outfield, whereas there was a full day’s exciting cricket at Taunton (Somerset 236 all out, Middlesex 18-3 at the close)… lots of action, a few dropped catches and a dramatic comeback by Somerset at the end of the day (and eleven of the 13 wickets fell to spinners).
Photo: The Middlesex players “team bonding” before taking to the field after lunch…
PS: Actually, although there was only one current England player featuring in today’s game at Taunton (Dawid Malan), the Middlesex team did also feature three players who have played for England over the past three years – Steven Finn, Sam Robson and Nick Compton)… Somerset’s only contribution was 41 year-old Marcus Trescothick – who last played for England 11 years ago.
PPS: Yes, there are more competitions (one-dayers and Twenty20s) these days, but it seems astonishing to me that the last game of the English domestic season finishes just THREE days before the start of October! This is supposed to be a “summer game” for goodness sake – there are only SO many jumpers that a cricketer can wear on the field at any one time (and hugely unfair on the spectators – the idea of them wrapped up in their winter coats and thermals for 6 or 7 hours a day for the four-day County Championship games seems faintly ridiculous!)… In 1960, for example, things seemed far more sensible – with the last game finishing on 6 September.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

september 2017 books...

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth): I picked up this book by chance when we were in Stratford and thought it looked ‘interesting’. Well, it was utterly absorbing… it’s about a man living alone on a west-country moor (he’s done this for the past 13 months)… we’re not quite certain what he’s left behind or why he’s on the moor, battling with both himself and the elements. It’s about survival and coping with a hermit’s life… and, gradually, about dealing with the animal he begins to see in the margins of his vision… which becomes a powerful obsession. The writing style is quite brilliant – brutal, relentless… you have a very real sense of the man’s emotions, his despair and yet, also, the logic of his struggle. At times, it actually felt a bit as though I was reading Cormac MacCarthy’s “The Road” (which I also loved). A wonderful, powerful book. 
The Long And Winding Road (Alan Johnson): I’d previously read Johnson’s first memoir “This Boy” (a remarkable, extraordinary account by the Labour MP’s childhood living in Notting Hill of the 1950s) some 3 years ago and loved it. Somewhat typically for me(!), I soon discovered that the ‘Winding Road’ was the third book of his memoirs – I’ll need to read book two out of sequence! He’s an excellent writer and it’s a wonderful, inspiring story of his journey from postman became Home Secretary. I might not have agreed with all his political decisions (eg. student tuition fees), but he comes across as an engaging, honest, funny man… the Prime Minister we never had. I really enjoyed this book… and have now acquired book two!
Paradise Lodge (Nina Stibbe): My second Nina Stibbe book… she’s a VERY funny writer! This is a novel, set in the 1970s, about a 15 year-old girl who is working at an old people’s home for 35p an hour instead of being at school (to pay for coffee and shampoo, luxuries her bankrupt mother can’t afford). She writes from the perspective of a 15 year-old girl and perfectly captures all the confusions, contradictions and anxieties. Stibbe has a gift for words and an imagination for the ridiculous which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Summer Game (Neville Cardus): This book was first published in 1928 (my copy was published in 1949). Neville Cardus was from an impoverished home background but, self-educated, he became the Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent from 1919-40. He’s regarded by many (me included – with the possible exception of John Arlott?) as the finest of all cricket writers. This book (that I picked up for £4 from a second-hand bookshelf at Gloucestershire’s Brightside Ground’s shop) provides a wonderful, evocative, almost romantic, series of descriptions of particular matches (usually featuring Lancashire), cricketing superstars of his day, schoolboy memories and former players - frequently making reference to the pre-war (WW1!)  ‘lost art’ of batting. Beautiful, poignant stuff… and it always seemed to be June and the sun was always shining brightly.
The Riders (Tim Winton): My second Tim Winton book (but the first novel of his I’ve read), shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1995. Australian Fred Scully decided to leave his homeland and make a new life for himself and his young family in unknown Ireland. He labours alone to make their dilapidated cottage habitable before driving to the airport to meet his wife and daughter. That’s when this desperate story really begins… I’m not going to say any more, except that I found it completely compelling. Brilliantly written (something I discovered reading his “Land’s Edge”)… I read the novel within three days and finishing it left me feeling utterly spent (in a good way!).