Wednesday, May 09, 2018

april-may 2018 books…

Spark (Alice Broadway): I’ve previously blogged (separately) about this book – daughter Alice’s second book in the ‘Skin Trilogy’. In this world of power and control/ haves and have-nots/ morality and corruption/ manipulation and duplicity/ judgement and risk/ belief and unbelief/ integrity and hope, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking, wise and powerful book. It might be labelled as ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novel, but it has a message for young and old alike. I absolutely loved it. A brilliant ‘page-turner’ if ever there was one.
Travelling To Infinity (Jane Hawking): I bought this remarkable book on the day Stephen Hawking died (from the £3 Bookshop!). It tells the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking’s extraordinary life together. They were married for over 25 years and had three children. They met in January 1963, shortly after Stephen had begun research in cosmology in Cambridge. Within a matter of months Stephen was diagnosed with a strain of multiple sclerosis (later confirmed as motor neurone disease) and given a ‘couple of years to live’ but, despite this, they married in July 1965. The story tells of Stephen’s celebrated achievements in physics, astrophysics, cosmology (and beyond!); the huge list of awards, medals and titles that were bestowed on him from governments and famous institutions; his amazing capacity for sitting for hours working out incredibly complicated theorems in his head; his love of being the star attraction at conferences throughout the world. But behind this frenzied lifestyle came the unrelenting, pivotal, 24/7 support he required to sustain things. Jane was clearly the person who enabled Stephen to achieve so much of what he did (providing the 24/7 care in the early years of their marriage - and a good deal beyond that; juggling family life; making necessary travel and complicated accommodation arrangements; organising suppers and receptions for distinguished visiting scholars and the like; accompanying him on his numerous engagements and providing constant ‘nursing’ support; and later co-ordinating his ‘external’ nursing support and balancing his escalating needs). Stephen and Jane divorced in 1995 (his second marriage to his nurse ended in divorce in 2006 and Jane remarried in 1997), but, since 2006, they were “able to associate freely again and enjoy many a family occasion together”. The book makes compelling reading. It’s a brave, honest, painful account of their lives – with all the triumphs and excitement, together with all hardships and sacrifices. I still haven’t seen the film (“The Theory of Everything”), but I suspect that it begins to tell the story of Jane’s vital role in Stephen’s life – something about which, in this world that concentrates so much on celebrity and success, I suspect that most of us never knew. It’s a long and complicated story – Jane is an excellent writer and she tells the story in a tender, non-vindictive and respectful way. I urge you to read the book for yourself.
Morality For Beautiful Girls (Alexander McCall Smith): I needed some gentle light reading after the in-depth account of the Hawking family! Another gentle, joyful, humourous book of African wisdom.
The Making Of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr): Marr is a brilliant communicator (I’ve also watched both the “Making of” and the “History of” versions on TV). In this book, he covers a lot of ground (from Queen Victoria to VE Day), but is particularly adept and entertaining at telling the stories behind the stories. Here are just a handful of the obscure bits that absolutely fascinated/appalled me:
a)    Unsurprisingly (although still depressing), the late 19th/early 20th century Britain saw rigid class distinctions (and these were only emphasised in parliament). Indeed, scientist Francis Galton (in 1901) was keen to introduce what he called “The Possible Improvement of the Human Breed under the Existing Conditions of Law and Sentiment” – endeavouring to classify people by their ‘civic worth’. I won’t shock you with the details but, essentially, “Society should stop the lower sort from breeding so enthusiastically, and encourage the elite to breed more”! Frighteningly, many powerful and influential individuals (including Churchill!) were supportive. The messages were also “well heard” in Germany where, in 1905, an organisation called the Race Hygiene Society was formed.    
b)   Medicals from WW1 recruitment underlined the huge nutritional and health differences between the classes: “on average serving soldiers were five inches shorter than officers”!!
c)    “Failure in Flanders had led Kitchener to make one of his most chilling remarks of the war, complaining that the British commander Sir John French had wasted shells, rather than men. The men could easily be replaced, he said; the shells could not”.
d)    I was struck by how powerful/influential the press barons (eg. Northcliffe and Harmsworth) of the early 20th century were… and how it mirrors the present-day world of Murdoch and his like.
e)    Similarly, in some strange way, between Lloyd George and Trump (although the latter continues to appal me!): referring to Lloyd George: “He believed in himself, and in doing. He was increasingly drawn to self-made  and ‘go-ahead’ business people, rather than party loyalists or other MPs. His power came from his actorly self-projection…”.
f)     I certainly wasn’t aware that, at the outbreak of WW1, there were more than a thousand suffragettes in prison and that the leaders of the WSPU (Women’s Social+Political Union) were “either in jail or on the run”.
g)    I found Britain’s attitude towards and actions in the Middle East (c 1917) thoroughly depressing (“Arab humiliation”). As Marr says: “We have made-up countries with imported puppet rulers; Arab nationalism first encouraged and then mocked; extremist forms of Islam left to flourish; and the old Caliphate abolished, leading to a debate about what should replace it in the Muslim world. The consequences of the First World War amount to more than paper poppies once a year; they are all around us still”.
All this before the end of WW1! I could add far, far more examples but, hopefully, you ‘get’ my enthusiasm! Marr writes engagingly, even-handedly and knowledgeably in great detail (and with frankness and much humour). I found it an utterly compelling read.
Follow On (EW Swanton): This book was first published in 1977. Swanton was, primarily for me, a very well-loved cricket journalist and broadcaster (he died in 2000 at the age of 92) whose observations on the game were usually intelligent and sensible (although, for some, perhaps just a little too measured and dry?). He was a traditionalist and VERY much a figure of the establishment (conservative with upper and lower case ‘C’!) and this autobiographical book has constant references to players and committee men (sadly, women don’t seem to exist in his world… and, for goodness, don’t even whisper the possibility of ordained women in the Church: “to give countenance to the idea of admitting women to the priesthood… would seem to be lunacy”!!) who, it seems, were primarily from Eton, Harrow (and one or two other prominent public schools) and Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Swanton was certainly not given to romantic descriptions of the game (like Neville Cardus) and, frankly, he frequently comes across as quite a serious, almost pompous, man in this book… which is perhaps a little unfair (albeit that he’d grown up in a different age). Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed reading his thoughts on the game… and, if he was alive today, I suspect that his views on demise of County Cricket would echo my own!

Friday, April 27, 2018

the guernsey literary and potato peel pie society…

Moira and I went along to Bristol’s Cinema de Lux (no, not the Watershed… and yes, my second film in two days!)(I know) to see Mike Newell’s film "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society", based on Mary Ann Shaffer+Annie Barrows book of the same name. I read the book in 2010 (and thoroughly enjoyed it) and think it’s probably time I read it again.
It’s set in 1946 and takes the form of an exchange of letters between a writer (Juliet Ashton, played by Lily James - and very lovely she looked too) in London and a Guernsey pig farmer (Dawsey Adams, played by Michiel Huisman) – the latter being a member of the GL+PPS book club. In his letters Adams conveys some of the struggles the islanders suffered during the German occupation… and, in due course, Ashton decides to visit the book club in Guernsey to learn more of their stories.
As I suspected, I didn’t enjoy the film anything like as much as I’d enjoyed the book.
The film was too sugar-coated for my taste (and the same applied to the sections which included musical accompaniment – which was all a little too soft and ‘twinkly’!).
It all looked rather beautiful and cosy – but just a little too charming, if you know what I mean. The Guernsey Tourist Board will no doubt be delighted – even if, apparently, much of it was filmed in Devon and Cornwall (not to mention Bristol harbourside!). The film script invented lots of stuff that wasn’t in the book and I also thought Michiel Huisman seemed a strange choice for the Dawsey character (Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian describes him thus: “one of the handsomest pig-farmers in the world, a stubbled exquisite”!).
But, hey, having said all that, I found it a perfectly enjoyable, feel-good film – just right for a rainy Sunday afternoon perhaps, when you’ve nothing better to do?
Photo: Film poster with Bristol’s very own ‘Balmoral’ ship in the background.
PS: I’d forgotten my previous experiences of Cinema de Lux – a) over half an hour of adverts and previews before the film(!) and b) just how ridiculously loud the sound system was (I would go as far as to describe it as ‘unbearable’!).

Thursday, April 26, 2018

let the sunshine in…

This afternoon I went to the Watershed to see Claire Denis’s “Let The Sunshine In”. It’s just possible that the main reason I wanted to see the film might have been that it starred Juliette Binoche (I think she’s got a bit of a soft stop for me too!).
Binoche is Isabelle, a divorced artist in Paris, now single, living alone and frustrated with her life and her (several) somewhat shabby liaisons… and perhaps asking herself: “Is that it? Is that really all that life has got to offer?”. It’s a film about growing older, about the need for companionship, about the fear of loneliness… and it almost goes without saying that Binoche pulls off her role superbly.
Despite lots of tears (from Binoche), it’s actually rather a funny film – beautifully understated, tongue-in-cheek… and the piece at the very end involving Gerard Depardieu, as a fortune teller with suspect motives, did make me smile.
I came away not quite knowing whether I really enjoyed the film or not… I think I did.

Friday, April 20, 2018

first day of the cricket season…

The new cricket season started today… and I went down to Taunton to watch Somerset ‘entertain’ Worcestershire.
The sun shone all day; there were over 350 runs scored and, somewhat ridiculously, 18 wickets fell. The wet conditions of last week turning to glorious sunshine this week clearly affected the wicket – in fact, across the country, the top innings score on this opening day was a mere 256 runs (perhaps the gradual demise of the county games means that players don’t get enough practice of the four-day game?).
Despite the fact that, at 10am today, the visibility from the train was reduced to 150metres at one point (you’re going to tell me it was ‘heat haze’, aren’t you?), by the time the match started at 11am, the sun was shining brilliantly and didn’t stop shining throughout the day.

The day’s cricketing honours went to two young players: Worcestershire’s Ed Barnard took his first five-wicket haul and Somerset’s Matt Renshaw scored an unbeaten century. 22 year-old Renshaw (born in Middlesborough, but already capped for Australia) was making his debut for Somerset and, ironically, he was a last-minute replacement for Somerset’s original Aussie signing, Cameron Bancroft – who you might recall was ‘caught up’ in the recent ball-tampering scandal.
It was all very idyllic – perfect weather, entertaining cricket, a very good crowd and people clearly delighted to meet up again and bore each other with their respective knowledge of cricketing records (that only other cricket fans have any interest in at all). Life is good.
PS: The day’s other points of note included: a) the old lady sitting directly behind me, watching the cricket and constantly humming quietly to herself (and me), b) me buying THREE old cricket books for a TOTAL price of £2 (yes, I’m feeling slightly smug!), and c) the woman announcer at Taunton station (ok, I know it was a recorded message) explaining to passengers that our train was running 29 minutes late due to a signal failure – but, at the same time, actually seemingly to infer something along the lines of “well, that’s what they told me anyway – but, frankly, who knows?”.
Photo: The above image probably should have been added to the “day’s other points of note” … this was the very first thing I was confronted by when I arrived at the ground: the bizarre sight of a press photographer(?) desperately trying to take a photograph incorporating a pint of Thatcher’s cider, a cricket ball and a boundary rope (and I just love his ‘leg action’)!!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

facebook…

Like many people, I struggle with the mysterious world of information technology, smart phones, social media and the like… and I simply know that I’ll always struggle.
And like many people, I’ve been appalled by some of the recent revelations/accusations regarding facebook and Cambridge Analytica (eg. the analytics firm apparently having harvested more than 50 million facebook profiles without permission; staff boasting about using manufactured sex scandals, fake news and dirty tricks to swing elections around the world etc etc) and other stories about a digital services firm linked to Cambridge Analytica receiving large payments from a pro-Brexit campaign organisation which potentially violated referendum spending rules.
As a result of these apparent violations to privacy agreements, there’s been a growing #DeleteFacebook movement.
A few of my best friends have decided that they‘ve “had enough” and have either deleted their facebook accounts or are about to do so. I understand that and, obviously, such decisions are very personal and need to be respected. But it saddens me. Will such actions have any real effect? Will the power of facebook or google or one of the myriad of other similar organisations get to them anyway? I really don’t know.

I have over 600 facebook ‘friends’ from all over the world. Of course, I’m probably only in proper, regular contact with a relatively small proportion of these friends but, nevertheless, facebook is the way I ‘keep in touch’ with them… and I love that. “But”, I hear you say, “if they were REAL friends, surely you’d make every effort to see them on a regular basis?”. Well, yes, wouldn’t life be wonderful if we were able to do that… but such options are both impractical and unrealistic. Yes, I could email or telephone my friends (I hate the telephone!), but it wouldn’t be same and it would be hugely time-consuming and inconvenient… not to say, far less effective (and enjoyable).
So (perhaps selfishly?), I’ll be staying with facebook – at least for the time being – and only hope that the privacy issues etc can be satisfactorily and quickly settled… and that I learn the very best ways of protecting my personal data (and that my friends learn to do the same).
I’m really sad that some of my lovely buddies have already decided to delete facebook, but recognise and accept their perfect right to do so (and will miss them big time).
But, of course, as they’re no longer on facebook they won’t be reading this.
Photo: illustration by Mitch Blunt.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

wonderstruck…

Ok, I admit it, I went along to the Watershed at lunchtime primary to have a glass of wine, some chunky chips and to do some surreptitious sketching in the bar… but, given that it was a rotten wet day, I also booked in to see Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck”.
The film is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s young adult novel of the same title. According to the Watershed’s blurb, it’s “both a children’s film for adults and a refreshingly grown-up film for children” and, if that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, “Wonderstruck is a movie that will leave you just that”…
Given such cheesy descriptions, I really should have known better!
As far as I was concerned, the film was neither a “children’s film for adults” or a “grown-up film for children”.
The main action takes place in New York 50 years apart (1927, in black+white, and 1977, in glorious colour). The two principal characters, Ben and Rose (both 12 year-olds, I think)(played by Oakes Fegley and  Millicent Simmonds respectively) are both deaf (actress Simmonds is actually deaf in ‘real life’) and both “desperately unhappy”. They both dream of a better life and head off for the Big Apple in search of a) Ben’s absent father, following his mother’s tragic death and b) Rose’s silent movie star heroine.
They both end up being drawn to the American Museum of Natural History as the two stories become interwoven. I think I’ll leave it at that… (frankly, the plots are pretty ridiculous and unconvincing – but the music is good!).
Look, it’s a perfectly ‘pleasant’ film (for a horrible, rainy day) but, frankly, I would have been much happier if I’d gone to watch “Isle of Dogs” again!
PS: On the positive side, I did do three very rapid scribbled sketches before watching the film (and I don’t think I was ‘spotted’ by any of the ‘victims’… and without either spilling my wine or covering them in mayonnaise!)

Sunday, April 08, 2018

we all need ‘spark’ in our lives…

I’ve just finished Alice’s second book, “Spark”, in her ‘Skin Trilogy’.
Don’t worry, this is a *no spoilers* post – I’m definitely not going to give away any clues about the storyline!
All I will say is that, in my humble unbiased opinion, my daughter is a brilliant, BRILLIANT storyteller!
I absolutely loved it. An outright ‘page-turner’ if ever there was one…
So, I’m not going to spoil things for you… I’ll just repeat some of the words on the book’s inside cover: “This sequel to bestselling ‘Ink’ is a story of deception and truth, of old foes and new friends, of abandonment and acceptance. These words will get under your skin”.
In this world of power and control/ haves and have-nots/ morality and corruption/ manipulation and duplicity/ judgement and risk/ belief and unbelief/ integrity and hope, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking, wise and powerful book. It might be labelled as ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novel, but it has a message for young and old alike.
Having three, talented, creative daughters who constantly make you feel massively proud… How special is that!?
The BIG question is… how on earth am I going wait another year for the final book?!