Monday, September 11, 2017

five years like this…

Well, somewhat remarkably, it’s been FIVE years since I started my ‘one day like this’ blog (setting myself a challenge of posting a daily drawing or photograph). When I first started, I had absolutely no idea of how long I might keep this daily ‘routine’ going… but it’s actually become very much a significant (albeit ‘normal’) part of my life. I still haven’t set myself any end date for the ‘challenge’… and don’t suppose I ever will. 
I started my blog very soon after returning from two months of volunteering with the Iona Community in 2012 (on that beautiful island of Iona, having met some wonderful people during the course of my stay and formed life-long friendships)… very much thanks to Ruth’s encouragement for me to send 40 postcards (which ended up being quick drawings) to various friends during the course of my stay.
Inevitably, the drawing quality has been somewhat variable (at best), but I’ve been quite pleased to have been able to produce the sketches relatively quickly – these days, the average time for each sketch has probably been 20-30 minutes (but sometimes they take 3 minutes and sometimes maybe an hour)… but I’ve really enjoyed the discipline the daily blog post has provided and the fact that I’m actually drawing on a regular basis. I’m very much a ‘project’ person and so my blog ticks a lot of boxes as far as retired life is concerned.
There’s part of me that thinks I should change from my current ‘project’… perhaps just post a daily Instagram drawing instead, for example? I did experiment with Instagram for a relatively brief period (posting stuff from my daily blog via Gramblr) but then the link packed up and I didn’t persevere. Let’s face it, I’m essentially a man of habit (with OCD tendencies!), so I suspect I’ll simply continue down my tried-and-tested road! Boringly, I quite like continuity!
I’ve produced a couple of Blurb books along the way… and perhaps I’ll produce another one in due course (maybe “2,000 days like this”? – I’m already over 1,800! – or maybe I should just wait until I’ve clocked 10,000 days!?).
PS: but it’s STILL costing me a small fortune in sketchbooks!
PPS: collection of twelve  ‘ordinary lines’ images ‘: sketches of small, incidental, ordinary ‘details’ within much bigger, equally ordinary, pictures.


Monday, September 04, 2017

half century…

Fifty years ago this week (well, maybe not quite this week… but pretty close), I started at Oxford School of Architecture. A handful of my close friends from that time (plus hangers-on!) will be duly getting together in Oxford to celebrate this momentous occasion.
It might get messy!
Fifty years ago, I was young. I was na├»ve. I was innocent(!?). I really didn’t know much about life or the world (when I compare myself to 18 year-olds of today).
Thanks to a random conversation with my Maths teacher, Gwyn Jones, I’d set my goals on becoming an architect (as opposed to a ‘draughtsman’, whatever that meant).
I’d passed my 11-plus and, much to my parents’ surprise (and staunch resistance), had gone through the ‘Remove-stream’ at Handsworth Grammar School and taken my O Level exams a year early.
Like many of my generation, no one in our family had previously gone to university. For both me and my family, it was an utterly different world. As far as my parents were concerned, I would be studying in Birmingham. I applied for a place on the architecture course at Aston, Leicester and Oxford. Much to my relief, Aston didn’t want me but Oxford offered me an interview (I can’t remember anything about Leicester apart from submitting an application).
As a very young 17 year-old, I duly went down to Oxford by train and was interviewed by the Principal – the wonderful, charismatic, unique Reginald Cave. My memory is that the interview lasted more than an hour… Reggie looked at my sketchbooks (yes, this was still a time when you needed to be able to draw if you wanted to be an architect!), asked me all sorts of mystifying questions and chatted about life and about my A Level subjects (Maths, Further Maths and Art). At the end, he offered me a place on the course… BUT, due to my young age, insisted that this be deferred for a year.
Being offered an unconditional place was absolute music to my ears and I readily accepted it - I’m pretty sure that my parents were a) similarly proud and b) at a complete loss as to how they were going to afford to make it all happen (we were very much a working class family)! 
You can imagine an equivalent situation/opportunity for a student today… So, what did I decide to do? Gap year? World travel? Somewhat ridiculously (when I now look back on things), I decided that I’d stay on for another year in the sixth form – that way, I could have another year playing for the school’s first eleven football and cricket teams. How utterly, utterly embarrassing, looking back… but despite the illogicality of the decision, my parents agreed.

A year on and I was preparing to make my way to Oxford. I needed to purchase, amongst other things, a drawing board, set square and T-square… plus drawing pens and pencils. I remember my uncle Len (who worked for the Water Board and knew about such things) telling which pens to buy (in the event, he was wrong and it took me another year or so to compile appropriate replacements!).
I distinctly remember being driven down to Oxford in our Ford Anglia (I had digs with a Mrs Brown in Headington), accompanied by my mother and our ‘auntie’ Ella. In the car’s small boot were my entire life’s possessions (or so it seemed): a medium-sized case, a portfolio and bag containing various pieces of equipment and books. Contrast this, for example, with when we took our daughter Hannah to Bath Spa University thirty years later… Moira and I had to drive her down in TWO cars, because she insisted that she NEEDED to have ALL her shoes with her (and, believe me, there were dozens!). Incidentally, I should point out that, amongst my small ‘array’ of clothes was a ‘sports jacket’… an item that my mother insisted I would need in order to attend the ‘Saturday dances’.
I kid you not.
My memories of enrolment day are relatively hazy. I remember getting my grant cheque and paying it into the bank (I was on a ‘full’ grant - £360 per year – and, amazingly, this really did suffice, just)(and without parental contributions). Of course, there were also no course fees! I think I remember getting stuck in a lift that first morning(?) and shaking hands with Steve Bowles (who was later to become my best man – he clearly thought that shaking hands was a very strange thing for students to do and has spent the past 50 years reminding me of this sad occasion).
But, hey man, this was the 1960s… flower power, drugs, Woodstock and much, much more.
On that first morning, I decided to walk into Oxford with one of my fellow architectural students, Rob Parkinson… he was public school-educated, had a posh accent and AMAZINGLY was walking around in his BARE feet (I know)! Boy, did I feel incredibly ‘un-cool’ (or whatever the word was in those days). The rest is history (obviously)…
You could buy a pint of mild in Old Headington for 1s 3d, but us hard-drinkers got into a routine of spending a whole £1 at the Turf pub on a Friday night (that’s 8 pints @ 2s 6d a pint).
Oh, yes, we knew how to live the high life!
Student life was very enjoyable, but tough… architecture students worked bloomin’ hard (even if it seemed to us that the rest of the student community spent most of their time in the common room – somewhat incredibly, we didn’t have a student bar in those early days!). Long hours and unremitting days… culminating in gruelling ‘crits’ when we had to explain and justify our schemes to our tutors (and, sometimes, to fellow students)… and then followed by two or three days of ‘rest and relaxation’ (drinking). Very competitive and great fun… but, crucially for me, it was all part of the process of ‘growing up’… and having the freedom to do this away from the confines of home was incredibly important. Those first three years on the course – and especially the first year – were gloriously life-transforming.

I readily accept that university is not for everyone (although it seems that’s what most young people are pushed into these days… wrongly, in my opinion), but just having time-off from family/home life gives young people the freedom to take their own decisions and make their own mistakes (which they will) and to learn about life, money, responsibility and relationships… still, hopefully, with the parental bail-out contingency if everything goes terribly wrong (in theory)!
As I say, for me, university WAS life-transforming and I’m just so grateful that I was given a chance to take advantage of the opportunity.
No doubt, the next few days will involve recalling various embarrassing stories and situations that we’ve spent the last 50 years trying to erase from our memories. Fortunately, there’ll also be LOTS of very fond memories too.
Photo: From a similar get together 5 years ago (very sadly, Christiane is no longer with us x).


Sunday, September 03, 2017

august-september 2017 books…

Land’s Edge (Tim Winton): Winton, born in 1960, is an award-winning Australian writer (as you probably already know). He lives on the Western Australian coast (where he also spent most of his childhood) and has a life-long fascination with all things coast-related. This short book is something of a “eulogy to a life lived from boyhood to manhood by and on the beach” (as ‘The Times’ critic accurately described it). As a coast-lover myself, I found it absolutely captivating. He has a beautiful, lyrical style of writing… this was one of those books one wants to read or dip into again and again. I’ve never read any of his other books, but will certainly be looking out for them in future (both fiction and non-fiction). A rather nice discovery!  
Uncle Fred In The Springtime (PG Wodehouse): You know exactly what you’re going to get with Wodehouse… a somewhat predictable, preposterous plot, several upper-class toffs, country houses, much hilarity and wonderful Wodehouse descriptions! All in all, a pleasant, relaxing summer reading (unless you absolutely can’t stand Wodehouse)!
Aung San Suu Kyi: A Portrait In Words And Pictures (Christophe Loviny): The first of two books about two brave, principled, political women (Caroline Lucas’s book follows!). Aung San Suu Kyi’s courage and personal sacrifices made in the struggle against Burma’s military regime has been extraordinary and inspiring. Celebrated journalist/photographer Christophe Loviny has been photographing Suu since 1996. The photographs are both beautiful and humbling and, together with Loviny’s words and insights from her family and friends, they are a powerful reminder of what this remarkable woman has been through and achieved. Archbishop Desmond Tutu described her thus: “This remarkable woman said she bore no one malice; she nursed no grudges against those who had treated her so unjustly; she had no bitterness; and she was ready to work for the healing of her motherland, which had suffered so grievously. In revealing this extraordinary magnanimity she was emulating Nelson Mandela… Without forgiveness there can be no future. Forgiveness is not a nebulous spiritual thing. It is practical politics”. An excellent, enlightening book.
Honourable Friends? (Caroline Lucas): I’ve read LOTS of political autobiographies, but I think this one (perhaps together with Chris Mullin’s?) is probably my all-time favourite. Published in 2015, it provides her ‘take’ on our dysfunctional parliamentary democracy and the “fight for change”. Unlike so many of other similar books, this isn’t a reflection on parliament from the perspective of a long political career. This is a view from a newby (and from a MP who isn’t from one of the main political parties) and highlights the tragic consequences of the first-past-the-post voting system… and parliament’s antiquated procedures; its malign voting system; the frequent deceit and harmful rhetoric; the two-party system which suffocates sensible debate; the bias towards big business over the individual; the awful influence of lobbyists… Since first being elected a MP in 2010, Lucas has been named Ethical Politician of the Year three times and won the 2014 MP of the Year award. It’s not at all surprising that this book has received enthusiastic endorsements from a wide range of commentators. What are surprising perhaps are the endorsements she has received from her fellow politicians, for example: “Our democracy is dysfunctional and our political system absurd on many levels. But in the mess that is modern politics, there are some MPs who stand out; people like Caroline Lucas whose commitment to improving our democracy and environment has never wavered, and who has been guided consistently by the same principles on which she was first elected to parliament” (Zac Goldsmith, Conservative). “For all those who want to understand better how Parliament works and how deficient it is in delivering the radical social and environmental agenda now so desperately needed, this is the book you need to read. Caroline Lucas has been phenomenally active in the House and outside, almost a party alone in her own right, and has blown a refreshing wind through politics on almost all the crucial issues facing Britain today, always pointing with a critical eye to the transformation needed. She is an inspiration to us all” (Michael Meacher, Labour). “By sheer force of personality, Parliamentary insistence and dogged commitment to the chamber, the committees, the procedures of the house, she has advanced her causes. It shows that it can be done. She has made one hell of an impact in the House” (John Bercow, Speaker). It’s a brilliant (albeit depressing), stimulating and challenging book.
True To Life: British Realist Paintings In The 1920s+1930s (Patrick Elliott+Sacha Llewellyn): I treated myself to this from the Arnolfini bookshop (having originally been made aware of the exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh some weeks ago via the BBC). For me, this is a favourite, fascinating, oft-forgotten era of British painting (but by no means all the work of this period, I hasten to add!). Typical favourite artists of this time include: Joseph Southall, Harold Williamson, Dod Procter, Gladys Hynes, Stanley Spencer, Lancelot Glasson, Hilda Carline, Fortunino Matania, Stanislaus S Longley, James Cowie, John Downton, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, Colin Gill, Laura Knight, Clifford Rowe and James Walker Tucker. A beautiful book.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

vice versa…

Moira and I went to Stratford to see the RSC’s “Vice Versa” at the Swan Theatre on Thursday evening. Written by Phil Porter and directed by Janice Honeyman, this ‘Roman Comedy’ was inspired by the plays of Plautus (Roman playwright who died in 185BC… and who’d actually based his plays on Greek plays, ideas and stories… as if you didn’t already know!). The RSC programme also provides the play’s alternative title: “The decline and fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter and Terence the monkey”.
You get the general idea… it’s a comedy!
We love going to Stratford and we love the RSC… but one other reason for making the trip was that the play also featured Felix Hayes (Hannah’s husband - but you knew that, didn’t you?) in the role of General Braggadocio. The RSC programme describes the action thus: “General Braggadocio is in no doubt that everyone adores him – especially the local women of Rome. His servants, Feclus, Omnivorous and the savvy Dexter, are at his mercy and either flatter, fear or avoid him. The truth is, Braggadocio lives up to his name. Unable to bear life enslaved, Dexter has a plan…”.

It’s all a ridiculous, over-the-top farce (featuring almost predictable comic situations, double entendres, stock characters, thwarted lovers and identical twins)… but wonderfully played by a really excellent cast. Sophia Nomvete, as Dexter, and Felix, as General B, are both brilliant. I may be biased (who me?), but one theatre critic described his performance in the following terms: Felix Hayes as the cocksure but crackpot General Braggadocio starts off with all the dials on ten and never lets up. Red-faced and on the point of meltdown throughout, he blusters and bullies but still has time to ridicule himself. It’s a case of excellent material meeting a superb characterisation”.
I think that’s just about spot on.
Despite all its humour, the play also contains relevant themes of chauvinism, freedom from oppression, and migration… and, indeed, there are various direct and indirect references to a certain US President (indeed, the programme includes a large colour photograph of the current President, smiling gormlessly whilst being kissed by his wife and daughter)!
In the programme, the writer Phil Porter beautifully describes it thus: “… the aspect that should be most recognisable in our world today is a certain strand of masculine, bullying behaviour, and the association of this behaviour with power”.
The sad thing is that Mr Trump, the pathetic egotist, would probably be delighted to know he’d made it into a programme of the Royal Shakespeare Company!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

final portrait…

I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Stanley Tucci’s film “Final Portrait”. It’s based on American art critic James Lord’s memoir of how Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) invited him to sit for him in Paris in 1964. Armie Hammer plays the part of young James Lord and Geoffrey Rush is simply superb as Giacometti (perhaps the film should have carried a warning along the lines of “several hundred cigarettes were consumed in the making of this film”!).
It recounts the story of how what had originally been ”sitting for a portrait for a few hours” ended up extending into days and then weeks (with Lord, flattered by the attention, being forced to cancel and rearrange a series of flights back home) as Giacometti is distracted by ruminations on art, death, money (not to mention his lover)… regularly being frustrated and dissatisfied by what he was producing (and frequently starting all over again).
It’s a comedy drama – sometimes quite touching – about an offbeat friendship amid the utter chaos of the artistic, creative process. I particularly loved the stark visual contrast between with the monochrome nature of the studio (which reminded me of Barbara Hepworth’s studio in St Ives) and the colour of Parisian life.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I REALLY enjoyed the film… it’s worth seeing for Geoffrey Rush’s mesmerising performance alone.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

july-august 2017 books

Enter A Fox (Simon Gray): To be honest, although I had come across Simon Gray (he died in 2008, aged 71), I hadn’t previously actually seen any of his plays (as far as I can recall) or read any of his memoirs. The cover of this short book, first published in 2001, includes various enthusiastic endorsements, such as: “The second funniest book I have read this year is The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray. (For the record, the funniest is Enter a Fox” by the same author” or “Has a man ever written such sustained and hilarious diatribes against himself?”. Well, sorry, but I was somewhat disappointed and left underwhelmed. To my mind, the book (written apparently in an attempt “to learn to write fluently” on his new Apple) is no more than a stream of consciousness rant by a bit of a grumpy old man (I should know – being both old and prone to ranting!). Entertaining at times but, if this is a recipe for making money, I should be sending my facebook rants to a publisher!
The Terracotta Dog (Andrea Camilleri): I really do like these Inspector Montalbano mysteries. It’s taken me a little time to get into them (Montalbano, with his “sardonic, engaging take on Sicilian small-town life and his genius for deciphering the most enigmatic of crimes”), but I’m now a big fan. The stories and characters are always entertaining, funny and irreverent; they all involve references to food, beautiful women, the ‘Mafioso’… and Montalbano relaxing on his veranda overlooking the sea and going for long swims… The crimes are always the focus but, for me, the characters, humour and colour of southern Italy are the crucial keys.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (Raymond Carver): A book of short stories, first published in the USA in 1976 (1993 in the UK). I’d not previously read any Carver books (and I wasn’t aware that he was particularly noted for his short stories). All the stories are set in America and are almost banal in content and seemingly full of insignificant detail. I frequently found them frustratingly open-ended and inconclusive – but that is clearly Carver’s style. Storylines are often feature the struggling relationships and frustrated dreams of ‘ordinary people’ (and plenty of alcohol, cigarettes and violence!). After I’d finished the book, I read that Carver (who died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 50) that he was born into a poverty-stricken family at the tail-end of the Depression and was the son of a violent alcoholic... and that (according to Wikipedia) he married at 19, started a series of menial jobs and his own career of 'full-time drinking as a serious pursuit', a career that would eventually kill him. It seems that he constantly struggled to support his wife and family, before enrolling in a writing programme in 1958 (which he ultimately saw as a turning point in his life). His stories clearly reflect his own experiences. I enjoyed the book – somewhat frustrating (and just a little disturbing at times), but compelling nevertheless.
The Goldfish Boy (Lisa Thompson): Essentially, this is a children’s book (albeit 400 pages long). It’s about a 12 year-old boy with OCD… who, amongst other things, is obsessed with clean surfaces and making notes about his neighbours (spied through his bedroom window). But it’s also a mysterious story about a missing toddler… and finding friendship when you’re lonely. It’s a very beautiful book (poignant, joyful and funny) and very beautifully written… I loved it.

On The Danger Line (Georges Simenon): First published in 1944, this is a volume of two short novels (‘Home Town’ and ‘The Green Thermos’) which essentially relate to criminal psychology. In ‘Home Town’, after an extended absence, travelling abroad and living on the fringes of the underworld, a man returns to the place of his early years. He’s a controlling bully and fraudster. He tells lies to impress his family and friends. He’s a nasty piece of work! The second book, ‘The Green Thermos’, tells the story of an anarchist in Paris who tries to prevent a bomb plot – in spite of police pursuit and dangers from those he has turned against. Both stories are intriguing and yet, to my mind, not totally convincing. Simenon was clearly one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century – apparently “capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day”! I reckon he would have rattled these off by Friday lunchtime! (PS: I’ve STILL to read ANY of his Maigret novels!).

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

drawing group exhibitions

If you live in or around Bristol, then I strongly recommend that you check out these two exhibitions at the historic city churches of St John on the Wall (in the crypt) in Broad Street and Saint Stephen’s in St Stephen’s Street:

St John on the Wall:
Wednesday 30 August-Monday 11 September (11.30am-2pm, Monday- Sunday). Preview/Open evening: Thursday 31 August 5.30-7.30pm.

Saint Stephen’s:
Thursday 7 September-Wednesday 20 September (9.30am-3.30pm Monday-Friday). Preview/Open evening: Thursday 7 September 5.30-7.30pm.

They will be exhibitions with a difference…
For the past 16 months or so, I’ve belonged to an amazing Drawing Group, which meets from 10.30am-12.30pm every Tuesday in either Saint Stephen’s Church (first Tuesdays in the month) or St John-on-the-Wall Church in Broad St (all other Tuesdays) to draw or write poetry or take photographs.
It’s a very lovely, welcoming and diverse collection of individuals with a wide range of artistic abilities, experience and backgrounds… led by the brilliant Charlotte and Alice Pain, wonderful artists in their own right. The exhibitions consist of sketches that group members have undertaken over the past year (we had a similar exhibition in St John’s Crypt last July/August). Some people have some drawing or photographic experience behind them (but, perhaps, have let the habit lapse?). Others have hardly previously drawn at all. For some, it’s an opportunity to experiment. For some, the group’s principal benefit is the group’s sociability.
Anyone/everyone is welcome to join and I’ve been incredibly impressed by the warmth of the welcome and its non-judgemental approach to art and creativity.
This is what Charlotte has previously written about the project and the group:
“This project is about helping the public connect to buildings and locations. It is about breathing a new breath of life into churches, bringing community back within them and exploring their uses. It’s about getting people drawing and making. It’s about a belief that creativity can help us to strengthen our voices, nurture our mental health and help us connect to each other.

From a core group of people who rarely miss a session to random visitors to the city who have long left Bristol behind them, each drawing is a moment in the life of St John’s/Saint and of the people who have walked through the doors. With the support and open-mindedness of The Churches Conservation Trust the project has flourished.
We are a diverse group of people who have developed a passion for St John’s/ Stephen’s and have spent many hours drawing, photographing and admiring these special buildings. This is not only a celebration, but an invitation to the rest of Bristol to join us”.
As you might realise, Charlotte and Alice are a bit special!

I don’t want to embarrass people by highlighting their individual talents or what they bring to the group but, hopefully, this will provide a flavour: Mike has produced more than 100 sketches over the past couple of years and his friendliness encapsulates all that the group stands for; Brian is another of those gentle, generous, welcoming people and his photographs of the churches are an inspiration; David is a simply brilliant artist (especially his watercolours!) who can draw beautifully and chat amusingly at the same time(!); Betty has been something of a revelation for me – every week, she produces her simple, intricate, beautiful sketches; Jonathan loves coming to the group – he’s industrious, friendly and with a passion for art; Jaki simply draws beautifully… and then there’s also Christine, Chris, Frances, Anne-Marie, DaveP, CharlotteM, DaveW, Justin, Jeff, Jean, Alex, Helen, Marc, Aran, Ed etc etc.     
Membership of the group is completely free so, if you fancy having an excuse to do some drawing, then why not give it a try?
Please take an opportunity to pop into the exhibitions to see examples of the work the group has produced over the past twelve months (and also to see these two beautiful Grade I Listed churches).

Photo: Artwork set out on the floor of the Crypt at St John's... selecting from the huge wealth of work produced over the past year wasn't easy!! 

Monday, August 07, 2017


I have, at last, seen Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk”!
It’s everything that I’d anticipated – in terms of being made to feel as if ‘you were there’ in the stark, brutal, frightening reality of war. Nolan cleverly (and very effectively) does this through three separate narratives (the evacuation from the beach; the pleasure craft coming to the rescue; and the battles in the air), which play out over three different time periods (one week, one day and one hour respectively)... with everything converging at Dunkirk and with time itself being variously compressed and elongated.
It’s all brilliantly done… and really does give you a sense of being part of the action.
My one slight reservation is the ‘fictionalisation’ of it all. True, stories-within-stories probably do help to convey a sense of reality (ie. how something affects a person or a family member or a colleague), but there were certainly times during the film when I found myself wanting to see the ‘bigger picture’ and not to be caught up in a bit of made-up story! I’m a great admirer of Kenneth Branagh as an actor, but even I found his portrayal of ‘Commander Bolton’ like something out of a 1950’s war film (or even like his characterisation of Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the London Olympics opening ceremony!). But, hey, that’s probably just me…
Anyway, this is a film definitely worth seeing.
PS: I’m clearly not used to attending cinemas such as ‘Cinema De Lux’ (frankly, give me the Watershed every time!). Somewhat ridiculously (I think it’s the first time I’ve been to a cinema before noon), I attended the 11.50am showing – but COULD have attended any one of today’s FIFTEEN scheduled screenings(!). In the event, I was one of just FIVE people in the audience… in an auditorium that seated some 300!!
PPS: The adverts and trailers ran for a full THIRTY minutes (I looked at my watch)!  Not only that, but they were INCREDIBLY loud (and I mean incredibly)… it felt a bit like being in a 1970s disco where the DJ wanted to show off the volume of his machinery. Anyway, I found it utterly unbearable and, acknowledging that there just might be one or two loud explosions in the main feature film (something of an understatement!), I ended up stuffing tissue paper in both ears (yes, REALLY!) in anticipation… and I’m very glad that I did!

Friday, August 04, 2017

typefaces, fonts, lettering… and stuff

After watching a recent television programme about typefaces (Gill Sans and Johnston), I’ve been reflecting on my own fascination with the subject.
Clearly, with my father being a compositor and printer (I still have very clear memories of visiting his place of work - Dams+Lock in Birmingham - and seeing and handling the metal typesetting ‘sorts’) and every page set by hand, it isn’t that surprising.

This has triggered all sorts of memories from my childhood… two of these involved watching BBC sport on the television.
I used to love watching test match cricket on the television (in black+white, of course, and featuring the likes of Peter West) and was intrigued by the handwritten, updated scorecards they used to put up on the screen at the fall of every wicket… beautifully and laboriously written out with traditional dip pens, metal nibs and bottles of ink! I used to try to emulate the behind-the-scenes mystery calligraphers – and wonder at how (comparatively) quickly they were at updating their scorecards compared with me doing the same on the dining table.
Actually, although I got to be pretty proficient at using lettering pens, I never really liked the style of lettering produced with a pen nib (I felt they were a “bit old-fashioned”).
My other television lettering fascination involved the production of the horse racing results! During the course of the Saturday afternoon “Grandstand” programme, they would show the racing results. Every result was shown on screen in the form of hand-written lettering (using italic, capital letters, I recall): first, second and third horses; their numbers, names and betting odds. These were produced at an amazing rate and all beautifully-crafted (with an impression that they were done using a brush… or am I imagining this?). Sadly, I haven’t been able to find an example of either the cricket scorecards or the racing results on the internet (maybe I’m searching in the wrong places? If anyone can come up with either of these, please do let me know!). I was so captivated by the racing result stuff that I can actually remember thinking it could be something I might do for a living!

Actually, it was the traditional typefaces that I was really interesting in.
I was part of the “Remove” stream at school (taking O Levels in four years instead of five). Sadly, in order to do this the powers-that-be insisted that anyone in this stream had to give up Art (how scandalous is that!). Eventually (but not until the very start of my O Level year), I mustered up the courage to ask ‘special permission’ to do Art… and, after MUCH head-shaking and irritation, the Headmaster finally agreed to my request (I must have been much braver than I actually recall!). I decided to opt for lettering as the most practical way of making up for lost time… which involved setting out, drawing up and painting lots of different forms of lettering. I found it all quite satisfying and passed my Art O Level without difficulty (but abandoned lettering for painting, drawing etc for A Level… but that’s another story!).
When I first arrived at School of Architecture in Oxford, I can recall drawing up and inking in lettering for my initial projects… but then we discovered the wonder of Letraset (dry rub-down Instant Lettering)! It totally transformed our lives as architectural students… graphic design and presentation was an important part of our architectural education and I think we went just a little over-the-top with our Letraset (and, for penniless students, it didn’t come cheap!)!

I’ve continued to be fascinated by typefaces and calligraphy. In particular, Japanese calligraphy has always rather captivated me. There was a recent television series (sadly no longer available on iPlayer, it seems?) on the BBC entitled “Handmade in Japan” which included a section on calligraphy – including work/performance by (I think) Miyu Tamamura (see this YouTubeclip)… one day, perhaps, I’ll roll back the living room carpet and have a go!
Computers, the internet and the digital world have long since taken over our lives when it comes to words, graphics, images et al… and it’s brilliant. But there’s just part of me that still yearns for some of the ‘old technology’, hand-produced stuff!
Photo: The cover from my 1984 Letraset catalogue (believe me, I had several others from the late 1960s onwards… all sadly binned!).

Thursday, July 27, 2017

july 2017 books…

Excursion To Tindari (Andrea Camilleri): My third Camilleri Inspector Montalbano Mystery book… and his appeal has grown on me each time. Set on the Sicilian coast, amid the daily complications of life at the local police headquarters and the culinary idiosyncrasies on offer, this is another slightly farcical (but endearing) tale of corruption, vendettas and justice in which the Mafia is never far away. Atmospheric, funny and intriguing... I really enjoyed it.
1984 (George Orwell): I’d read this book a couple of times before – once in the early 1970s and then again in 1982/3 – and decided that it was time for another re-read (but it’s a bit scary to realise that a book you thought you’d ‘recently’ read turns out to be 35 years ago!). Two ‘new’ realisations immediately struck me before I’d even finished the first page… the first was that the book was first published in 1949 (the year of my birth) and the second describes Winston Smith as having a “varicose ulcer above his right ankle” (just like me at the present time!). Spooky! I think I found reading it this time even more powerful/disturbing than before… the world of the internet is now very much a central feature of our existence and, with it, we seem to have instant access to ‘everything’. It’s also a world where facebook and google (for example) know our likes and dislikes; know about our political leanings; know how old we are and where we live… It’s also a world where, for many people it seems, the media controls what and how they think (The Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers, for example!?). It’s also provided us, thanks to social media, with our own artificial world of similar-minded people – whilst, at the same time, there are other artificial worlds of people who have utterly different values and beliefs… not to mention ‘fake news’, of course! Orwell’s picture of an egalitarian Utopia is both brilliant and frightening. Nearly 70 years on, it remains utterly compelling and hugely impressive.   
Act of Passion (Georges Simenon): First published in 1947, this is only the second Georges Simenon book I’ve read. The cover of my paperback copy says he’s “deservedly famous for his exact studies of the minds of madmen and murderers”… and the comment certainly applies to this book. It’s cast in the form of a long, pathetic letter addressed from prison to the examining magistrate in a murder case. The prisoner, a doctor, strangled his mistress and struggles to explain just why he was forced to “kill the thing he loves”… why the act was rational and why he must repudiate any suggestion of madness. The magistrate, he is sure, will understand. Believe me, if I’d been the magistrate, I’d have stopped reading the letter after just a few pages! Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing (albeit shocking) account of control, violence and, ultimately, madness.
The Clock Winder (Anne Tyler): First published in 1972 and set in Baltimore, the novel tells the story of a young woman who, while taking time away from college to earn a little money, ends up finding herself, somewhat bizarrely, being taken on by a recently-widowed woman (and the mother of seven grown children) as a handyman. The story, which spans 14 years, addresses the young woman’s relationship with the widow and then the relationship between her and several of the widow's children. They end up changing each other's lives in fundamental ways. Hauntingly impressive… I probably need to read more of Tyler’s books.
Realms Of Glory (Catherine Fox): This is the final book of Catherine Fox’s Lindchester trilogy. Fictional tales about the Anglican Church might not sound particularly appealing but, take my word for it, Fox has the wonderful ability to convey poignant insights about the C of E (warts and all) in a way that are full of grace, kindness and hilarity. This book is set during the months of 2016 (post-Brexit, Trump, Syria, foodbanks etc). She’s a first class writer and I’ve greatly enjoyed all three of her books (thanks to Moira’s initial recommendation). Anyone with even a slight acquaintance of the Anglican Church will probably recognise some of the characters portrayed, but such knowledge is no prerequisite for being able to enjoy her books. I thoroughly recommend all three of them.


Saturday, July 08, 2017

racing demon at the theatre royal bath…

Moira and I went along to the Theatre Royal Bath last night to see a revival of David Hare’s play “Racing Demon”, first performed at the National Theatre in 1990.
We’d previously been to see a production at the Theatre Royal, but there’d been a BIT of gap between yesterday evening and the last time we were there… just a FORTY-FOUR YEAR gap!!
On the face of it, the idea of going to see a play about the Church of England (the establishment church?), society, politics, morality and such like might not seem like the best way to enjoy a Friday evening… but that was far from the case. David Hare was a playwright who emerged from the left-wing theatre movement of the 1960s and 70s… someone who was clearly angered by the injustices, as he saw it, of the capitalist system and wanting to see a ‘fairer society’.  
Yes, whilst the play was inevitably ‘dated’ on some matters (eg. regarding the ordination of female bishops and references to the poll tax), it felt very much a play of ‘our time’ – touching on such secular matters as (in addition to the spiritual): austerity; the ‘haves and have-nots’ of society; justice; morality; domestic violence; listening to and supporting people who feel they have no voice… and at a time when many still question the relevance of the Church in today’s world.
When he wrote the play, in the late 1980s, Hare felt that the Anglican Church provided subject matter that was archetypically English and, at worst, represented an old-fashioned institution, stuck in its dogmatic ways and struggling to adapt to ‘modern life’. From the programme notes, it appears that Hare respected many of the clergy he met in his researches, but was conscious of the best of them being “up against a bureaucratic system that worked in opposition to their talents”… with the Church appearing to have become increasingly irrelevant, “debating arcane matters of doctrine instead of looking outwards to fulfil the community’s spiritual needs”.
The play proved to be provocative, challenging, thought-provoking and, as far as we were concerned, still highly relevant today.

One of the prime reasons for going last night was to watch our lovely actor friend Sam Alexander perform…. and he didn’t disappoint (in his role playing Revd Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon!).
Indeed, the whole cast were excellent… with David Haig quite brilliant as Revd Lionel Espy and Paapa Essiedu very impressive as the curate, Revd Tony Ferris.
A really excellent evening.
Photo: Paapa Essiedu as Revd Tony Ferris.

Friday, July 07, 2017

a man called ove…

I went to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Hannes Holm’s “A Man Called Ove” – based on Fredrick Backman’s novel about a grumpy old Swedish man named Ove (played in the film by Rolf Lassgard/Filip Berg as older/younger versions). The character is a widower (his lovely wife Sonja, played by Ida Engvoll, was the light of his life) and he’s recently been made redundant, aged 59, by the company he’s worked for for 43 years.
He has given up on life (literally).
He lives in a small estate upon which he has endeavoured to impose strict rules (introduced when he was chairperson of the local residents’ group)… he records incidents in his notebook about bad parking or about bikes being left unattended; he lists items people have borrowed from him (and demands their return); he criticises other people’s driving abilities… the list goes on, and on.
Actually, I could easily have played Ove in his grumpy mode without even having to act (and for half the money) (I think even look a bit like him?)! But, in fact, the Ove character really reminded me of my father (even more than me – which is saying something!) – organised, practical, community-helper… and, at times, something of a pig-headed, busy-body!
But, as well as the grumpy bits (indeed, often arising out Ove’s very grumpiness), there were some lovely, funny incidents – like him stopping talking to his best friend for ten years because he dared to buy a Volvo instead of a Saab!
Ove’s sad, lonely regime is shaken by the arrival of a pregnant Parvanah (an Iranian immigrant, excellently played by Bahar Pars) and her family, who move in next door… and a beautiful friendship develops.
I haven’t yet read the novel (but I definitely will, in due course).
Strangely, although I really enjoyed the film, I came away feeling just a little disappointed. Perhaps my expectations (after seeing the trailer) had been unreasonably high? I THOUGHT I would absolutely LOVE the film… but, in the event, it fell just a little short of my hopes and expectations.
Nevertheless (as the Watershed’s programme blurb puts it), “what emerges is a heartwarming, funny, and deeply moving tale of unreliable first impressions and a gentle reminder that life is sweeter when it’s shared”.

Friday, June 30, 2017

june 2017 books…

The Lake District Murder (John Bude): Yet another enjoyable, escapist, murder-mystery from the British Library Crime Classics. I think this is the fourth Bude novel I’ve read in this series (first published in 1935) and, true to form, the author seems to go out of his way to demonstrate the cleverness of his plots and the intricate thoroughness of his detective hero, Inspector Meredith, in this golden age of detective fiction. As usual with these books, they highlight the enormous changes that have taken place in our daily lives over the past 80 years or so: petrol at 1s 3d a gallon; a world of motor bikes and sidecars (and an absence of traffic); a time when Police Inspectors used to salute Superintendents and Chief Constables (perhaps they still do?); when murderers were hanged; when women were frequently portrayed in a somewhat feeble guise (eg. “she, feminine-like, threw a faint”!); when smoking was commonplace (especially pipes with certain gentlemen!); a time when you needed to check Encyclopedia Britannica for facts (no internet or google); when everyone (in this novel, at least) seemed to be constantly checking their watches or the church clock (so they could give the police accurate accounts of their movements etc); when people resorted to using proper (Bartholomew) maps, not sat navs; no television; no photocopiers; no emails/fax machines; no mobile phones; no digital photography; no DNA technology… and WW2 still hadn’t happened. You get the general picture!  
Prisoners Of Geography (Tim Marshall): A fascinating, brilliantly-researched book (published in 2015). The cover gives the following additional description of what it’s about: “Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You need To Know About Global Politics”… and that just about sums it up. It might not quite explain ‘everything’, but it does provide a coherent, geographical background to the issues facing world leaders today. The book is full of well-judged insights into such matters as Russia’s action in Ukraine; China’s struggle for maritime power; the USA’s highly favourable geographical circumstances and natural resource endowment; deeply embedded divisions and emotions across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia; and (somewhat ironically given the Brexit vote) Europe’s reactions to the uncertainties and conflicts nearby – after more than 70 years’ peace and prosperity.
The Shape Of Water (Andrea Camilleri): This is my second Inspector Montalbano Mystery and I really like this character! As before, the action takes place in Sicily (amid delicious meals, corruption and the like)… the body of an engineer is discovered on a trash-shrewn site brimming with drug dealers and prostitutes. The coroner reckons he died of natural causes, but Inspector Montalbano isn’t prepared to close the case (much to annoyance of the local police chief, judge and bishop!). I really enjoyed it… and also found it brilliantly funny at times too. I’ll definitely look for more of these in the £3 bookshop!
The Ornatrix (Kate Howard): Set in 16th century Italy, this novel is essentially about issues of belonging, female identity and the perception of beauty. The main character, Flavia (who herself was born with a birthmark covering her face), becomes the ornatrix – hairdresser and personal maid – to Ghostanza (courtesan-turned-widow), whose white-lead painted face entrances Flavia and “whose beauty and cruelty are unmatched”. It’s a well-written, clever and frequently raw story about (as the book’s flysheet describes it) “desire, obsession and deceit”. Not exactly a “boys’ book” perhaps but, nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it.
In Case Of Emergency (Georges Simenon): First published in 1956, this is a self-portrait of a French defence counsel in his late forties. His successful career (frequently based on a series of dubious cases) has given him a life removing in a world of politicians, ambassadors, businessmen and fashionable women. It’s a world of opulence, privilege, power, control, obsession… and mistresses. His marriage isn’t what it was and he establishes a serious relationship with one of these mistresses (an ex-prostitute whose defence he had rigged). He knows it’s foolish… and, as he moves towards what he sees as a crisis in his life, he feels impelled to embark on as a secret diary – effectively, a dossier on himself. Strangely compelling.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

slack bay (ma loute)…

Yes, I know, choosing to go to the cinema on one of the hottest days of the year isn’t everyone’s idea of fun… but that’s what I did this afternoon! I wanted a break from all the sad frustrations and horror of the real world and felt that Bruno Dumont’s film (with a wealth of amazing French stars including Juliette Binoche - say, no more! - Fabrice Luchini and Valerie Bruni Tedeschi) now showing at the Watershed would be just the thing.
I was aware of the film’s background/story and was perfectly content to enjoy the bizarre, over-the-top, ridiculous romp that this film would undoubtedly be…
I wasn’t even put off by the postcard reviews on the entrance staircase that the Watershed encourages from its audience. These are just four of them: “Strange… very odd, macabre and funny”; “I hated it”; “One of the worst films I’ve ever seen” and “Funny, bizarre and clever”!  
I’ll try to outline the plot… albeit very briefly! Postcard-perfect seaside village in northern France in 1910… there’s a working class family (the Bruforts) – a lowly clan of fishermen (who also double as ferrymen to either row or CARRY people across the low waters that surround the dunes; there are the upper-class Van Peteghems, vacating for the summer; and there are two detectives investigating unsolved and mysterious disappearances. These detectives are played (literally) in the guise of Laurel and Hardy characters – one huge and one very slight individual, dressed in black suits and bowler hats.

I’m really not a great lover of slap-stick humour, but I REALLY enjoyed this film (and so, it seemed, did the rest of the audience)… wonderful timing, ludicrous incidents, complete and utter over-acting by all the adult members of the Van Peteghem family (I thought Fabrice Luchini was superb) and an absolutely ridiculous, exaggerated plot – which included good old-fashioned cannibalism plus a measure of gender-bending identity crises!! Don’t ask!
If I had one minor criticism, it would be its length (122 minutes)… I think it could have been 20 minutes shorter and still just as funny/crisp.
The film is theatrically extravagant and, at times, almost Pythonesque… and I know it won’t be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, but I loved it (and laughed out loud on several occasions – sorry!).

Thursday, June 15, 2017

bristol pilgrimage 2017…

If you’re ever on the beautiful island of Iona, the weekly pilgrimage walk around the island is an experience not to be missed.
During the course of my 8-week stay there as a volunteer with the Iona Community in 2012, I bought Jane Bentley+Neil Paynter’s really excellent book “Around A Thin Place” (an Iona pilgrimage guide) and, as well as using it when I was on Iona, I have used it as a resource for my own Bristol pilgrimage version on three previous occasions (undertaken in September 2012, March 2014 and June 2015).
Yesterday, I decided to undertake a fourth ‘pilgrimage’ journey around Bristol (strangely, I thought I’d done more than this… but the blog never lies!).

This time, I broke up my route into eight sections or stops… pausing for reflections taken from the book, together with my own deliberations. Each time I’ve done this, I’ve used a completely different set of locations and, as on my previous walks, the weather was perfect.
As before, I related my stopping points with pilgrimage stops on Iona:
St Martin’s Cross/setting out on the road was Gaol Ferry Bridge; The Crossroads was the Cumberland Piazza (essentially land under the flyovers by Cumberland Basin); Dun I/High Point was the Clifton Suspension Bridge; The Hermit’s Cell was, perhaps a little incongruously, Clifton Cathedral (the Roman Catholic cathedral); St Columba’s Bay was the Harbour/Harbourside; The Machair was Queen Square; The Jetty was Temple Meads station;
and St Oran’s Chapel/Reilig Odhrain was God’s Garden (a grassed area beside the Cut).

I’ve been chatting to quite a few of Bristol’s homeless people over recent months and I found my final stop at God’s Garden particularly poignant. On Iona, St Oran’s Chapel was the place that the bodies of numerous kings were sent for burial – the end of the journey (literally)… the homecoming, as it were. God’s Garden was my final stop before arriving back at home, just up the road. But, for many of the homeless, God’s Garden IS home. Small, rough tents, belonging to these otherwise homeless people, have appeared over recent months. As you might imagine, it’s far from ideal but it does represent the nearest thing to home for many of them. It’s a very tough existence – made all the worse because of the frequent thefts of their ‘belongings’ or people causing deliberate damage to their tents… or even the risk of flooding (from the adjacent tidal Cut). Life is tough… everyone needs their dignity.
Within two minutes of leaving God’s Garden, I passed a roadsign declaring “Home Zone ENDS” (Home Zones are small local residential areas where traffic and pedestrians are mixed together – no pavements). In the circumstances, it seemed a particularly ironic, sad statement.
The day proved to be another challenging and thought-provoking time… and something that I will no doubt repeat in Bristol over the coming years.
This Celtic blessing, from the book, seemed to sum up my day rather nicely:
May God’s goodness be yours,
and well, and seven times well, may you spend your lives:
may you be an isle in the sea,
may you be a hill on the shore,
may you be a star in the darkness,
may you be a staff to the weak;
and may the power of the Spirit
pour on you, richly and generously,
today, and in the days to come.
Photos: just a few photographs from my day.