Sunday, December 03, 2017

november-december 2017 books…

The Novel Habits Of Happiness (Alexander McCall Smith): Apparently, we’ve got 11 McCall Smith books on our shelves (I’ve just checked!), but this is the first one I’ve read (he’s one of Moira’s favourite authors). This one is “an Isabel Dalhousie novel”. For the first few chapters, I found myself asking “what’s the point of all this?” – it’s about a well-off, middle-class philosopher, living in Edinburgh, with a perfect husband and a well-behaved, equally perfect 3 year-old son… living an ideal, well-balanced life. But, during the course of the book (which raises questions of reincarnation, the nature of grief, squabbling academics… and more), I became drawn in and fascinated by the intelligent, moral curiosity and kindness of Dalhousie’s world.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (JK Rowling): This is my first Harry Potter book (yes, really)… I’m reading it with the enthusiastic encouragement of certain grandchildren - who have long expressed sympathetic incredulity at what they see as a huge deficiency in my knowledge/life experiences! Well, I have to say that I think Joanne Rowling is a bit of a genius… incredibly inventive, funny, clever and, clearly, with a wonderful ability to conjure up memorable characters and thriller-like stories. I think she might do rather well! I enjoyed it a lot.
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (JK Rowling): My second Harry Potter book (see above!)… and another very good read. It even featured an old Ford Anglia car – owned by the Weasleys - identical to the very car in which I passed my driving test (we had a two-tone blue one with an intriguing Monte Carlo Rally sticker on one of the back windows!).
The Potter’s Hand (AN Wilson): Yes, I know… a lot of Potter-related stuff! This is a novel about Josiah Wedgewood and his family and, I’m afraid, I really do dislike this kind of historical fiction… with lots of made-up characters, ridiculous invented scenarios and imaginary conversations. Yes, it tells of a remarkable time in this country’s history – the industrial revolution, the scientific inventions, the coming together of men with very different skills that were to transform so many lives… but I would much have preferred to have read a history on the subject or a biography, rather than this long (over 500 pages) tale. Wilson (whose father was in fact Managing Director of Josiah Wedgewood and Sons) is obviously a gifted writer… but I’m afraid this book was definitely not for me (and don’t get me started about the totally made-up story of Blue Squirrel, a Cherokee woman who fell in love with Wedgewood’s nephew and who just happened to be an exquisite potter in her own right and who came over to England and played a leading role in the creation of Wedgewood’s ‘Portland Vase’ and married Wedgewood’s boatman on the canals… all utter tosh!!).  
Signs For Lost Children (Sarah Moss): This is the first of Moss’s novels I’ve read (I’d previously read “Names For The Sea” – a memoir about her time with her family spent in Iceland – a lovely book). This is a follow up to her novel “Bodies Of Light” – which, of course, I haven’t yet read (rather typical of my recent ‘out-of-order’ reading experiences!). It’s set in the 1880s and tells the story of a couple (Ally and Tom) embarking on married life in a white cottage in Cornwall… Idyllic, but Tom is soon given an opportunity to build lighthouses in Japan (an opening he feels he can’t turn down) and, meanwhile, Ally, a doctor, takes up a post at Truro Asylum. It’s only for six months (“letters only take a few weeks now”), but the pair have known each other barely longer than that. It’s a story of individual exploration for both of them but, with separation comes, new challenges, opportunities and realisations. It’s a great shame that I hadn’t initially appreciated that the first book even existed(!) and therefore feel that I missed out on knowing more about Ally’s background… although perhaps the lack of her background story meant that I was able to take both their lives more at face value? It’s a beautiful, powerful, sad-but-hopeful book which highlights (amongst other things) the role of women within the family – I thoroughly recommend it (and wonderfully, elegantly written). I now need to read the first book!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

film stars don’t die in liverpool…

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. I didn’t have any real expectations of seeing a particularly good film… just that one or two friends/family members had mentioned that they’d heard ‘good reports’.
Well, I was wrong... I thought it was an absolutely lovely film.
Essentially, it’s a you-couldn’t-make-it-up true romance set in Los Angeles, New York, London and Liverpool in the late 1970s and early 80s and based on Peter Turner’s own memoir. It’s a remarkable, sweet, sad love story starring Annette Bening (as legendary Hollywood star Gloria Grahame) and Jamie Bell (as Turner).

As an unknown, struggling young actor in the late 70s, Turner met and fell in love with Grahame who, incredibly, was living in the same north London boarding house. With her Hollywood career seemingly behind her, she was looking for stage work in Britain and suppressing worries about her health. Despite their age difference (Turner was 28 years younger than Grahame – in fact, half her age), the pair had an on-off affair. Sometime after their fling ended, Turner received a phonecall to say that Grahame had collapsed in her dressing room while on tour in the UK, and had asked to come and stay with Peter and his family in Liverpool, convinced that she could recover there.
It would be unfair to go into further detail, so I’ll just say that it’s a tremendously warm and tender love story. I may be a soft/easy touch as far as these things are concerned, but it ticked an awful lot of boxes as far as I was concerned – pathos, humour, passion and exceptional acting. Both Bening and Bell were simply brilliant (and I really mean that!) – Oscars for each of them perhaps?
The soundtrack of music from that era also works perfectly – together with an apt new song (given recent Hollywood revelations/accusations?) by Elvis Costello entitled “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way”.
All in all, one of the very best films I’ve seen this year.
You DEFINITELY need to see it!

Monday, November 27, 2017

modigliani exhibition at tate modern…

I rather like the work of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920).
As those who know me will realise… this is a bit of an understatement. I’ve had the exhibition dates in my diary since the start of the year and so it was a ‘bit special’ for Moira and me to make it to Tate Modern last Friday (just a day after the exhibition opened).
The exhibition certainly lived up to my expectations and there was something very special to be able to view over 100 of his well-known portraits (not forgetting the single landscape!).
For me, it perfectly captured the creative, bohemian atmosphere of Paris in those early years of the twentieth century… and, in particular, the vibrant arts ‘scene’ of Montmartre (Modigliani arrived there from Italy in 1906).  My only regret was in failing to book a virtual reality exploration of the artist’s life and the environment that inspired his work.
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Modigliani’s work more or less in date sequence… and, in particular, how he concentrated for some two years on producing superb sculpted stone heads (six were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1912 – the only substantial exhibition of his sculpture during his lifetime)… seeing them ‘up close’ was quite a revelation. Fascinating how their elongated form (and the numerous accompanying sketches he produced at this time) seemed to influence much of his subsequent portraits over the remaining eight years of his life.
Actually, I was wrong when I said “my only regret” about the exhibition… somewhat inevitably, perhaps six of my very favourite Modigliani portraits were missing (eg. a particular portrait of Zborowski; Portrait of Woman in Hat; Bride and Groom; Gypsy Woman with Baby; Madame Kisling; Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie)… but, hey, the exhibition DID have a beautiful oil painting that I’d not previously seen (Nude Study, 1908) – either in books or via the internet.
I really did enjoy this exhibition and, as a result, will be continuing to read about Modigliani’s life and work over the coming the weeks and months.
Photo: Exhibition entrance, Tate Modern
PS: Very interesting to see the Edgar Degas (1834-1917) exhibition at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge two days later... born in France and spent most of life working in Paris.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

touching turner’s treasures (again)…

You may recall me singing the praises of the Ashmolean Museum’s brilliant Print Room in Oxford at various times in the past… I’ve previously viewed works by Michelangelo, Raphael and Turner there.
Well, I made another trip there yesterday to see some more of Turner’s watercolours. The museum is fortunate to have been bequeathed large quantities of artwork from John Ruskin in 1861. I was originally going to look at the handful of watercolour sketches Turner did of Oxford but, having chatted to the wonderfully enthusiastic and efficient Katherine (I’d met her on my previous visits in 2011 and 2012), I decided, instead, to look at some of the watercolours he did in France in 1830 – on the Loire, in Orleans, Tours, Blois and the like – a total of 22 watercolours in total.
I spent very nearly an hour poring over these amazing pieces of work. Each of them quite small – none bigger than say 15x20cm – apparently undertaken quite quickly and yet containing amazing amounts of detail (Turner’s ability to ‘imply’ detail through his technical mastery is simply breath-taking at times). I’ve merely dabbled in watercolours in the past (enjoyably, but pretty unsuccessfully!), but taking time to study these works by Turner left me completely in awe.
A huge privilege and another truly magical, memorable experience.
Photo: Just two of the watercolours I actually handled yesterday: Amboise (left) and ‘The Bridge and Chateau at Amboise’ (right).
PS: The Print Room at the Ashmolean is open to “members of the public, students and visiting scholars alike for the study and enjoyment of drawings and prints from the collection” (quote from the print room brochure)… and it’s free.
PPS: Turner’s output makes my ‘One Day Like This’ project (posting a daily drawing/photograph on my blog) positively puny in comparison (not that I could possibly compare myself to HIM!). Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve posted some 950 sketches. Turner left over 19,000 sketches and watercolours in the “Turner Bequest”, hundreds of finished watercolours and well over 500 oil paintings. How on earth did he find the time (he virtually produced a ‘sketch’ EVERY day of his adult life – and this doesn’t allow for his “finished” paintings!)? Blimey.

Friday, November 17, 2017

the florida project…

Went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project”… about life ‘in America’s underbelly’ (as the Watershed’s blurb puts it). It tells the story of a spirited six year-old, her friends and single mother who ‘live’ in a depressing, garishly-painted, lilac motel outside Disney World in Orlando (one of many long-stay welfare places for transients and mortgage defaulters). The mother – impressively played by Bria Vinaite (a heavily tattooed first-time actor who Baker apparently found through Instagram, with a business selling weed-themed merchandise!) – spends most of the film swearing incessantly and desperately trying to come up with her weekly rent through a mixture of hawking Gucci knockoff perfumes to tourists and selling her body. Her life, it seems, is all about delusion and fear. Her six year-old daughter, Moonee – astonishingly played by Brooklynn Prince – is a feral child (alongside her fellow friends), able to do whatever she likes and go wherever she wants… and she too swears like a trooper throughout the film. Prince is unforced, humourous and entirely natural… and, for her, living next to a theme park, probably feels a little like living in paradise.
It’s wonderful. It’s funny. It’s powerfully impressive. It’s beautifully photographed… but it’s also very depressing and a sad reflection of the lives of some of those who find themselves on the very margins of society.
That’s not to say that everyone in such situations lives their lives in such a manner.

I knew I’d find the film depressing at times. I knew I’d spend much of the film wanting the ‘grown-ups’ to have some regard as to how and where their offspring were spending their days (it was the summer vacation). I knew I’d be amused at the antics of the children but, at the same time, horrified by their lack of respect and by their abusive, rude behaviour.
Both mother and daughter use the F-word incessantly. You just know right from the start that the family isn’t going to win the lottery and live happily ever after… and yet there is real affection between these two characters – they really do love each other.
You get a very strong feeling that the film is all about seeing things from a child’s point of view and, apparently, Baker insisted that the camera is at child’s eye level when children are being filmed… and this is very effective.
The film is fiction and yet you just know that such situations are being played out in countries throughout the world… and, tragically, you just KNOW that the daughter will inherit the mistakes and attitudes of the mother… and that her future is almost pre-destined. In such circumstances, sadly, life is often self-perpetuating.
A brilliant, very impressive, warm, compassionate - albeit somewhat depressing - film.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

up down man…

Tonight, Moira and I went to the Tobacco Factory Theatre to see Brendan Murray’s “Up Down Man” (the sequel to “Up Down Boy”) – a play about growing up and moving on… through the eyes of a twenty-nine year-old man, named Matty Butler (who has Down’s Syndrome) and his family.
Yesterday, I spent over an hour drawing students from the circus school, Circomedia as they practised handstands, cartwheels, back-flips and the like… and I was mesmerised by their sheer grace and elegance of movement.
Well, tonight was no different.
Nathan Bessell (who plays Matty Butler) is at the centre of this play at all times, and communicates so much through his movement and expression… and quite, quite beautifully.

“This is who I am – my name is Matty Butler. I’m not a child, I’m twenty nine years old. I like foxes, badgers, dancing, eating dinner, going bowling, Eastenders, dancing and foxes. I’d like to have a friend. Maybe Angel from Buffy. And we’d go on holiday and live together and have dinner and go dancing. I’m not a child you see. I’m twenty nine years old. My name is Matty Butler. This is who I am. And I like foxes.”

It’s a very powerful, yet simple, story.
In the play, Matty’s mother died six weeks ago. The family are trying to come terms with her death. People with Down’s Syndrome are now statistically living longer, but what happens when they outlive their parents? The job of a parent (especially a parent of a child who has a learning disability) is to prepare their child for a time when they will fly the nest. It’s a delicate balance… providing protection from some of the more difficult and painful parts of life, but also trusting them (where possible) with a level of independence… which might in turn lead them to getting hurt.
As you might imagine, as a grandparent of 11 year-old Mikey - who has Down’s Syndrome (and also autism) – this play is incredibly close to my heart.
The supporting cast are excellent: Arran Glass (Mr Fox/Musician); Emily Bowker (Darcy Butler, sister); Joe Hall (Martin Butler, father); Heather Williams (Odette Butler, mother); and Bryan Thomas (Jim).
It’s poignant and it’s sad, but it’s also funny, hugely hopeful and uplifting.
I thought it was just wonderful.
PS: It runs until Saturday 18 November… if you live in the Bristol area, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

ricky ross at st george’s…

When I grow up, I’m going to be a singer/songwriter and play a grand piano… just like Ricky Ross.
Last night, Chris and I went to see/hear Ross perform his songs, unaccompanied, for an hour and a half – just him and St George’s wonderful grand piano. Sadly, I can’t play ANY instrument and I certainly can’t sing very well… although I DO remember composing some stunning songs (believe me, they were wonderful!) whilst rocking grandchildren to sleep at various times. Unfortunately, they’re now lost in the mists of time.
The concert was simply brilliant.
I just love the sound of a single voice and a piano together. I’ve been listening to a lot of Ross’s music over recent weeks (his “Short Stories, Volume 1” is simply brilliant in my view) and they’ve provided a perfect musical accompaniment and resonance for the various things I’ve been undertaking recently… and, perhaps, also for my day-to-day reflections on stuff that is happening in the wider world.
Last night was a perfect combination: profound, evocative, sad, uplifting, powerful… and hauntingly beautiful melodies.
A really wonderful concert (best of the year?).
Photo: photograph from last night’s concert.