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.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

my life as a courgette…

Taking a somewhat pessimistic view of the outcome of today’s general election (but, hey, maybe I’ll be proved wrong?!), I decided to cheer myself up yesterday by going to see Claude Barras’s “My Life As A Courgette”.
You might not have come across the film before, but I’m just telling you:
PLEASE, PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU SEE IT!
When I tell you that it’s an animation film – only 66 minutes long – featuring characters with enormous heads and that the leading individual is a nine year-old boy who calls himself “Courgette” (well, his mother used to call him that name), then you’d be excused for thinking that my enthusiasm was just a little over-the-top…
Courgette finds himself in a local orphanage after his alcoholic mother’s sudden death. There he meets a misfit group of children, each with their own emotional baggage and traumas to bear. But, with the help of the brilliantly supportive orphanage staff, the children find ways of getting on with their lives - and in relative harmony. Courgette’s world becomes even brighter with the arrival of young Camille…
It’s a PG film made for both children and adults (but, with all the tragic family backgrounds, my gut feeling is perhaps 10 years plus?).
The film deals with very difficult issues… but it still manages to be funny, tender, sensitive, uplifting and very beautiful. The music (by Sophie Hunger) is rather lovely too.
I didn’t (quite) cry, but critic Mark Kermode certainly did… and gave it a five star review.
I absolutely LOVED this film (and so will you)!
PS: When I originally saw the trailer, it came with sub-titles (and, with the pretty rapid dialogue, it probably meant that you’d be concentrating on the sub-titles rather than the animation?)… but the version I saw yesterday had been dubbed in English – which probably made it easier (for me) to digest/appreciate the film fully.

 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

golem…

Moira and I went along to the Bristol Old Vic last night to see Theatre Company 1927’s “Golem”… and we emerged feeling incredibly fortunate to have witnessed such a wonderful piece of extraordinary, inventive theatre.
Our good fortune was at Hannah+Felix’s expense (literally)… they had passed on their tickets to us after another engagement had cropped up (doubly sad, because I know they would both have enjoyed the performance enormously).
The 1927 Theatre production embraces technology, art, design, original film and animation projections (by Paul Barritt) with stunning, slick precision to tell director/writer Suzanne Andrade’s story about mass-technology and its effects on our lives - initially through the ‘character’ of a clay figure called Golem, who comes to life and begins to take on basis tasks that help simplify the life of its ‘owner’… and this Golem, in turn, is replaced by Golem 2… and then Golem 3 (a bit like iPhone 7?).
Technology gradually taking over.
It’s a brilliant blend of acting, music, projections and lighting… breathtakingly clever, witty and stunningly stylish. The acting (and the immaculate timing) is excellent.
The mingling of of live performance with animation and film is quite, quite magical.
As we approach another General Election, it’s perhaps a gentle reminder of some of the shortcomings and losers in this brave new world of ours! You know, the one where corporations and shareholders seem to be the only winners?!
Essentially, it’s a message about anti-consumerism and anti-technology/dreams becoming nightmares… and, obviously, as someone who a) still uses a pen or pencil to write notes, b) doesn’t own an iPad, c) has recently exchanged his BlackBerry for a very basic answer/call/text mobile phone and d) no longer owns a car, I can be excused for feeling somewhat superior and smug! Yeh, right!
It really was an extraordinary, colourful, intoxicating, unique evening of theatre – 90 non-stop minutes full of wonderful imagery and invention… and a modern fable.
PS: The 1927 Theatre Company is on tour with ‘Golem’ until 24 June. Today (3 June) is the last night at the Old Vic, but it’ll be showing at Ipswich, Oxford and Harrogate over the coming weeks. If you get a chance, PLEASE see this production… you DEFINITELY won’t regret it!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

the red turtle…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle”. It’s a co-production with Japanese animation giants Studio Ghibli (Isao Takahata is artistic producer)… so it immediately ticked LOTS of boxes as far as I was concerned!
It’s a stunningly beautiful film – with Dudok de Wit mixing hand- and computer-drawn images throughout – and it’s also completely wordless! Laurent Perez del Mar’s breath-taking score perfectly complements the minimalist visuals… making words completely unnecessary!
The film is about the unlikely ‘friendship’ between an island castaway and an enormous sea turtle. The shipwrecked man, on a deserted island, struggles to construct a raft, but every attempt to leave is thwarted by a huge red turtle that seems intent on having him stay.
This is one of those films that you just have to see for yourself… it’s an enigmatic masterpiece.
Everyone who sees it will no doubt have a different ‘take’ on the film. I certainly don’t intend to try to explain it (I’m still trying to come to terms with bits of it myself) but I’ll just say this: the man sets out to foil the creature’s attempts to prevent his escape but, in doing so, the man finds himself being instructed in the ways of companionship, respect for the environment and ultimately being led to understand that nature must take its course.
But don’t just take my word for it… I’ve just read Mark Kermode’s five-star review in The Guardian and he ends his piece as follows:
“Seamlessly combining analogue and digital animation…, they compose a visual symphony that seems to comprise a history of cinema itself; from monochrome nights to richly hued days; from porous green trees to luminous blue seas; orange sunlight to pearlescent moonlight…
Integrating his cues with the natural soundscape, the composer utilises wood and bamboo percussion, gentle flutes and soaring strings to negotiate the film’s kaleidoscopic tones. The melodies have a nursery rhyme candour, yet encompass themes of longing and anguish, despair and delight, love and death.
I could say more, but this is a film that respects the sound of silence. It is a work of art which transcends boundaries of language, culture, geography and age. It is simply magnificent”.
It’s a poignant, powerful, gentle, charming and rather wonderful film – which I strongly urge you to see.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

april-may 2017 books…

Old Filth (Jane Gardam): This is the second book I’ve read from Gardam’s “Old Filth” trilogy… in fact, this particular book was the first to be published (in 2004). Filth (the name given to him by his colleagues at the Bar – ‘Failed In London Try Hong Kong’!), in his heyday, was an international lawyer with a practice in the Far East. He was born in the mid-1920s and, after a childhood in Malaya, was one of many children sent ‘Home’ from the East to be fostered and educated in England at the onset of WW2. It’s a beautiful, poignant and, frequently, very funny book about the ‘glory days’ of the British Empire… and about ageing and relationships. Gardam is a brilliant writer and this is one of my very favourite books.
Gut (Giulia Enders): The book cover describes it thus: “the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ’. In 2012, Enders (who was then studying for a doctorate in gastroenterology) won the first prize at the Science Slam in Berlin with her talk “Charming Bowels”! She duly received offers to write a book on the subject and “Gut” is the resulting publication (“a publishing sensation” as The Times describes it). It’s an absolutely fascinating book – hugely entertaining and informative – covering all manner of things from the basics of nutrient absorption to the latest science linking bowel bacteria with depression. A thoroughly enthralling book, but one which, ultimately, I was somewhat relieved to have finished… there’s only SO much talk about poo, vomiting, constipation et al that one can take! A pretty wonderful book, nevertheless… and beautifully illustrated too (yes, really!)! 
The Cubs And Other Stories (Mario Vargas Llosa): Llosa, born in Peru in 1936, is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and this a collection of early writing in a volume of seven short stories… essentially related Llosa’s “domain of male youth and machismo, where life’s dramas play themselves out on the soccer field, on the dance floor and on street corners”. I have to admit that I sometimes struggled to come to terms with the author’s writing style (especially in ‘The Cubs’). Not exactly my cup of tea. Sorry!
Botanicum (Katie Scott and Kathy Willis): This is a rather stunning book that celebrates the world of plants. Text by Kew’s Director of Science, Professor Kathy Willis, and lavishly illustrated by Katie Scott. It describes itself as a “museum” which is “open all hours”. As you would imagine, it’s very informative and Scott’s drawings are very beautiful (if I have one gripe – and I’m sure it’s just me! – I do think SOME of the coloured illustrations have a rather “Walt Disney”, almost cartoonish, quality about them, which wasn’t to my personal taste… but a very lovely book nevertheless.
Last Friends (Jane Gardam): This is the last book of Gardam’s ‘The Old Filth’ trilogy. I’ve REALLY enjoyed all the books and will certainly be seeking out more of her books over the coming months. ‘Last Friends’ is continuing story about love, memories and ageing (see above!) – this time, adding Veneering’s story to the mix (Veneering was Old Filth’s chief “rival in law and love”… who later became a good friend). Gardam’s gift for the gradual uncovering of events and people’s stories (and the sheer beauty of her writing) are some of the real joys of all three books. Highly recommended! 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I’ve just voted…

This afternoon, I sent off my postal vote in connection with next month’s General Election.
I’m a member of the Green Party but, somewhat controversially (many would say… especially my Green Party friends), I voted for Karin Smyth – our local Labour Party candidate (and the sitting MP).
I did so NOT because I think the Labour Party has proved to be an effective Opposition – far from it – but because I felt it was the most effective way, locally (under our ridiculous first-past-the-post electoral system), to ensure that the Conservative Party didn’t sneak in through the back door.
I actually think the chances of this are extremely slim (it’s been a Labour stronghold since 1935) – although if UKIP’s vote collapses (they came third in 2015 with over 8,000 votes), then the Tories could feasibly win if all former UKIP voters changed to the Conservatives (Labour beat the Tories by just over 7,000 votes last time).

At the beginning of November last year, I blogged about my fears (given the state of the Opposition) that there was going to be a General Election“very soon”. I felt that the ONLY way to prevent a Tory landslide at the next general Election was “for the opposition parties to work together in order to try to maximise their chances (they might not win an election but, at worst, they might secure a far more effective Opposition)”.
I went on to say that in order for this happen, it would “require Labour, LibDems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru to work together (in England and Wales) and to decide which party stands the best chance of winning each individual parliamentary seat (and to concentrate their limited resources/budget accordingly). Sadly (in terms of true democracy), this will mean that the Green Party, for instance, should only contest perhaps a total of say six seats; the LibDems say 75; Plaid Cymru say 20? In all the other constituencies (and, yes, that would include mine), this would mean the electorate making a straight decision between the Tories and Labour (with UKIP perhaps eating into more Tory votes than Labour!).
It’s far from ideal, but it might be the ONLY way the Labour Party (and the country!) can avoid utter disaster. It would also mean that the Labour Party would agree to incorporate LibDems/Greens/Plaid Cymru policies within its own manifesto (and include members from the other parties within its own Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet)”.

Sadly, despite the Green Party pressing other political parties to enter into some form of election pact, no such arrangement has been agreed. In my view, even despite the lack of any official agreement, I firmly believe it is quite ludicrous for the Green Party to waste its very limited financial resources (don’t get me started on funding for national parties!), for example, here in South Bristol (where it gained support from less than 12% of constituency voters in 2015)… instead, again in my view, they should be concentrating 100% on winning Bristol West (a distinct possibility according to the local media). Bristol West is one of only a handful of seats throughout the country that the Greens have ANY chance of winning. Unfortunately, any such Green victory would be at the expense of Labour!
So, far from ideal, but frankly, there probably isn’t a single current Tory seat in our local area that the Conservative Party is likely to lose 
But now the die is cast… the deadline for candidates to be in place has passed (on 11 May). I just find it staggering that the Opposition parties haven’t been able (or even shown any desire… apart from the Greens) to allow a constituency-by-constituency arrangement for current Tory-held seats or identified ‘marginals’ whereby only a single opposition candidate from the national parties stands against a Conservative candidate.  

So, it’s now all down to the electorate (and you probably know my views on democracy!). If EVERY voter – well, realistically, those living in perhaps the hundred(?) where the outcome might be in doubt, under the first-past-the-post system - made a careful judgement and only voted for the opposition candidate most likely to have a chance of winning against the Tory candidate, then the outcome could be VERY different… but I’m not holding my breath.
I would love the opinion polls to be wrong yet again and for a non-Tory government to be in place come 9 June, but I very much doubt it.
I fear the worst!

Friday, May 19, 2017

frantz...

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Francois Ozon’s “sumptuous period piece set in the aftermath of WW1, where a young woman forms an unlikely bond with a man she encounters at her late fiancé’s grave” (as the Watershed’s blurb puts it).
In a small German town after the end of the war, Anna (beautifully played by the beautiful Paula Beer) mourns daily at the grave of her fiancé, who was killed in battle. One day a mysterious young Frenchman Adrien (again, very well played by Pierre Niney) also lays flowers on the grave… and the pair embark on a friendship – in which Anna finds some solace in memories of her beloved.
That’s all I’m saying… you need to see the film!
This largely black-and-white film is apparently a loose adaptation of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch drama Broken Lullaby, which was in turn based on a play by French playwright Maurice Rostand – although Ozon has written his own new second half of the story.
The film is part-romance, part anti-war and highlights the struggles, sufferings and reactions of people from both sides (in this case, German and French). The film also highlights the rise of nationalism in Germany immediately after the first world war – a theme which has been echoed recently with a rise of nationalism in Europe generally (eg. Marine Le Pen’s far-right party gaining popular support in France; UKIP’s voice in the depressing Brexit vote… and some politicians calling for a return to borders).
It’s a powerful film about remembrance, love… and the pain (some would say ‘futility’) of war.
I very much enjoyed it (and was completely captivated by Paula Beer’s portrayal of Anna!).
PS: My enjoyment of the film was somewhat marred by the two loud-mouthed, elderly (my age!), ‘posh’ ladies sitting immediately behind me - who insisted on commenting on what was happening on screen in ‘stage whispers’ throughout the film – DESPITE me twice turning round and giving them my ‘look’!!

Monday, May 15, 2017

southbank bristol arts trail 2017 at number40

Last weekend saw the 15th SouthBank Bristol Arts Trail… and, as it was our 14th consecutive SBA Trail, I suspect that we’re now its longest serving participants. We’re perhaps fortunate that our house is located relatively close to the Southville Centre (one of the largest venues on the Trail) and therefore has acquired a fair amount of “passing trade” over the years - but actually, as an established venue, we now enjoy something of a reputation of being a ‘venue worth visiting’ and have the privilege of welcoming  returning ‘punters’ year after year and it’s always a delight to see them. But we’re also very fortunate to be able to attract plenty of new visitors too.
We didn’t count the number of people visiting this year but, by common consent (based on previous years), we certainly had some 700 plus ‘punters’ into our basement studio over the weekend (the weather was very kind to us yet again).
It’s very much a ‘family affair’ at number40 – this year (as is often the case) we had five family members exhibiting (Moira, Hannah, Ruth, Stuart and me – plus Iris and Rosa, who decided to make cakes!) together with our lovely arty friends Wendy, Georgie+Alex from Pirrip Press and Paul Ashley Brown.
Each year, it’s a bit of a challenge (something of an understatement!) to clear the basement of its usual studio clutter - and to transfer it all to the dining room! There are certainly times when we wonder if it’s all worthwhile… and yet, every year, we end up feeling grateful to have been part of it again.
I have to admit that there are times when I feel that Bristol has reached saturation point as far as Arts Trails are concerned (the SouthBank Trail is the city’s second longest-running trail, I think) – especially as it seems that some artists like to participate in perhaps four or five of the trails(!)… but, hey, these things go through various reincarnations over the years. Each year, there’s always a doubt as to whether the event will happen… will there be sufficient people prepared to help organise? I was part of the steering group for perhaps 10 years, so it’s DEFINITELY an event crying out for fresh blood every year!
There is a tremendous sense of community about the Arts Trail… over 150 artists in more than 50 venues within a HALF MILE radius!!
That’s SOME artistic community!
Fingers crossed for next year…
Photograph: various stuff from this year’s Arts Trail at number40.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

richard murphy at the arnolfini…

Marcus and I went along to the Arnolfini last night to hear architect Richard Murphy talk about the work of his Edinburgh practice - with particularly emphasis on the house he designed for himself at Hart Street, Edinburgh… which won the RIBA’s ‘House of the Year’ award in 2016.
The evening, organised by The Architecture Centre, in association the Bristol+Bath Branch of the RIBA, was attended by a near-capacity audience and Murphy proved to be an entertaining, engaging speaker.
The award-winning house acts as a 'bookend' to the adjoining terrace of Hart Street houses. The roof made mostly of glass with inset photovoltaic cells is designed both to ensure daylight to the adjacent basement flat on Forth Street and also to act as a major collector of solar energy. Inside the roof are a number of insulated shutters which are capable of closing when the roof is in net heat loss mode and opening when there is a net heat gain.

For me, one of the house’s most impressive features was its ability to maximise daylight but also, when required, to be somewhere to hunker down – or as Murphy described it (citing Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck - who’d said that a house should be both “a bird’s nest and a cave, an extrovert place in summer and a retreat in winter”): “In Edinburgh, we can have 20 hours of daylight a day or six; the house needs to close down as much as open up”.
Murphy’s practice made a simple video which shows some of the house’s features – it’s only 6 minutes long and well worth watching.
A very good evening and a very impressive architect.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

tartuffe at the tobacco factory theatre…

Moira and I went along to the Tobacco Factory Theatre last night to see Andrew Hilton’s and Dominic Power’s adaptation of Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (first performed some 350 years ago) as part of the annual “Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory” season (yes, I know, Moliere isn’t Shakespeare!). It’s a complete reinvention of the play which follows Moliere’s pattern of using rhyming couplets (somewhat awkwardly at times for my liking), but set in today’s world of fake news and political uncertainty(!).
Moliere’s original ’victim’ character, Orgon, is here transformed into a gullible government minister Charles Ogden - played in Yes Minister mode by Christopher Bianchi - who is fooled into bequeathing his family fortune (and almost his wife and daughter) to Tartuffe, played by Mark Meadows, as some sort of present-day cultural guru – whose greed and ideology is capable of destroying lives for his own ends. I wasn’t entirely convinced that the family could have been naïve enough to allow the Tartuffe character to live in their house rent free (and meals provided) for as long as he did… but, hey!
A very enjoyable, entertaining evening (although, at times, I felt the play verged on becoming too farcical). I particularly enjoyed the performance of the Polish maidservant, Danuta (yes, they even included an EU migrant worker!), played by Anna Elijasz (Polish herself and who trained at the State Academy in Warsaw).
It seems like an awful long time since we last went to the Tobacco Factory Theatre (a couple of years perhaps?)… we’ll be back again soon. Promise.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

april 2017 books…

The Idiot Brain (Dean Burnett): This is a very entertaining and illuminating book. Its front cover boldly describes it thus: “a neuroscientist explains what your head is really up to”… and that just about sums it up. It endeavours to explain such things as how the memory works, panic attacks, depression, motion sickness, forgetting people’s names, false memories… At times, I felt somewhat numbed by scientific facts, but Burnett has a wonderful knack of being able to explain complicated stuff in a very simple (frequently very funny) way. He also highlights some very bizarre examples, such as: researchers who first looked into the phenomenon of less-intelligent people being more confident were “inspired by reports of a criminal who held up banks after covering his face with lemon juice, because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, so he thought his face wouldn’t show up on camera”. Precious!  
Wilderness Taunts (Ian Adams): This is the second of my Lent books (written by my brilliant friend Ian Adams). It’s a tough book of daily reflections/meditations – reflecting Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Challenging messages and, as the title suggests, taunts… but also there’s light. Maybe these taunts and challenges turn out to be gifts that help us to better understand who we are and whatever is being called of us? Despite its hard questions, I found the book both accessible, relevant and hugely thought-provoking (it also contains Ian’s beautiful, haunting photographs). A really excellent resource that I know I’ll continue to revisit.
London Transport Posters (Michael F Levey): This beautiful book tells the story of London Transport’s championing of poster art from 1909 until 1976 (thanks to the vision of Frank Pick, from the time he joined LT in 1906). I’ve always loved posters and, over the past couple of years, have been taking an increasing in the work of Fred Taylor (1875-1963) – who was born in London and designed posters for London Transport between 1908 and 1947. The book only contains 80 posters, but they’re enough to capture and highlight this particular art form born of our modern industrialised society. I really enjoyed this book… and it has also drawn my attention to several other talented artists, such as: E McKnight Kauffer, William Roberts, Oleg Zinger, FC Herrick and Charles Pears.
The Man In The Wooden Hat (Jane Gardam): Moira had recently read and very much enjoyed this book (it’s part of a trilogy), so I thought I’d give it a ‘go’. On the face of it, it really isn’t ‘my sort of thing’, but I was quite, quite wrong. It’s about a judge, his colonial upbringing and career, his long marriage, his rivalries and friendships… and told, in the main, from his wife’s perspective. It’s an evocative, charming, sometimes difficult, story about love, about people, about secrets… and about growing old. Gardam is a stunningly good writer and this was an exceptionally good book (I can’t wait to read the other two).
Book Of Longing (Leonard Cohen): Cohen has been something of a life-long hero for me. I’ve loved his songs right from the late 1960s. This book (first published in 2006) is a new collection of his poetry and writings – mainly taken from the mid-1980s onwards. For me, there are times when his work seems to have a sense of the ‘emperor’s clothes’ and leaves even me thinking: “I could have written that”, but I very much enjoyed the book. In a way, it tells the story of a life – sometimes playful, sometimes colourful, frequently erotic and occasionally angry. It also, perhaps, contains the arrogance of the idolised. Some of the pieces were subsequently used as song lyrics for the album “Ten New Songs”. One of the surprising joys, for me, was the inclusion of several of Cohen’s own illustrations (often quick, scribbled self-portraits ridiculing his ageing features!). Having finished the book in the early hours (not being able to sleep), I found the following words from his poem “I Am Now Able” wonderfully ironic (as well as not sleeping, I hardly ever use the telephone!): “I am now able/ to sleep twenty hours a day/The remaining four/are spent/telephoning a list/of important people/in order/to say goodnight…”. I’ll continue to dip into this rather lovely book.

Friday, April 21, 2017

the sense of an ending…

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Ritesh Batra’s film of Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning novel. I’d read the book nearly five years ago and had loved it.
The principal character, Tony (wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent), now retired and divorced, reflects on his schoolboy days, his friendships and a particularly painful relationship during his university days… and then something happens (I can’t tell you!) that turns the clock back 40 years.
Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica, Tony’s university girlfriend – with Billy Howie and Freya Mavor playing the characters (rather delightfully) in their younger days. The other main supporting actors Harriet Walter (who plays Tony’s ex-wife and confidante, Margaret), Michelle Dockeryl (who plays Tony’s daughter) and Emily Mortimer (playing Veronica’s mothers) are very good too.
Essentially, it’s a story about ageing and memory – something I’ve been reflecting on an awful lot lately.
It’s a poignant, moving film – beautifully acted and excellently crafted.
I was particularly pleased that the film included my favourite quote from the book (P95):
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves.”
I think you need to see it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro…

I went to the Watershed yesterday to see Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro”.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic… frequently exploring racial, sexual and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America.
Essentially, this is a documentary envisioning a book that Baldwin never finished. He left behind just 30 completed pages of a manuscript about the lives of three of his close friends – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The resulting film is a radical view of race in America today – using Baldwin’s original words (narrated by Samuel L Jackson) and a mass of archival material (including Baldwin participating in various studio discussions and also at a Cambridge Union debate in 1965). Again and again, Baldwin criticises the romantic perception of the “American Dream” and it has adversely affected African Americans.
I’d seen a preview of the film and knew that it would be difficult viewing.
Most of us are well aware of seeing footage of some of the horrific, vicious, racist scenes from the 1950s and 60s – including shameful scenes of police violence, the frightening, humiliating, anti-black protests by whites and a reminder of an awful time in the USA when white and black were segregated. Director Raoul Peck, in the Watershed’s programme notes, said this: “Because there were some victories with the Civil Right’s Movement - we have Martin Luther King day, we have Black History Month - most people think everything is good now, we’ve solved all of the problems. We have monuments; we have museums. But, that’s not the case”.  
The film represents a timely, powerful challenge to the definition of what America stands for today – especially in the light of relatively recent #BlackLivesMatter ‘incidents’ and since President Trump’s inauguration (and his various comments during the presidential campaign).
But, of course, sections of America aren’t alone in adopting such intolerant attitudes… in Europe, we have the migrant crisis (amongst other things) and here in the UK, after the depressing Brexit vote, we have seen an alarming rise in reported hate crimes.
Sadly, thirty years on, Baldwin’s words feel as urgent and as articulate as ever.
*NotInMyName*
It’s a difficult, shocking, compelling and saddening film to watch, but I urge you to see it.