Saturday, April 30, 2016

son of saul

I went along to the Watershed yesterday to see Laszlo Nemes’ acclaimed film “Son of Saul” (winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Golden Globe) – an unforgettable Holocaust drama set in the Aushwitz II-Birkenau death camp in 1944 (I still struggle to realise that the holocaust happened just FIVE years before I was born).
Saul (brilliantly played by Géza Röhrig), is a Jewish prisoner who has been made part of the Sonderkommando, inmates given tiny, temporary privileges in return for policing their own extermination. They have to deal with the day-to-day business of herding bewildered prisoners out of the trains and up to the very doors of the gas chambers… and then removing the bodies. The film pulls no punches. It actually STARTS with a gas chamber scene.
It was shot entirely on 35mm film, and for most of it, the focus is on Saul’s agonised face, in tight close-up almost throughout - with the surrounding and background details often left blurred or indistinctly glimpsed.
In the gas chamber, Saul discovers the body of a boy, whom he believes to be his son, and he sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give him a proper burial.
At times, I found it difficult to understand precisely what was going on… but, ultimately, this didn’t matter.
It’s a completely uncompromising and remarkable film. Unrelenting and courageous.
It’s not an easy film to watch, but one that I highly recommend that you do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

april 2016 books…

More book stuff:
The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Richard Flanagan): A simply brilliant, exhausting book… about, amongst other things, the despair, degradation and nightmare of a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. Reading it, I felt as though I was actually experiencing what it must have been like to be a prisoner. The book’s flysheet describes it as a “savagely beautiful novel… about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth…” – and I can’t argue with that. Flanagan is a wonderful writer and I was particularly drawn to his focus on how hard it is to live after survival. Dedicated to his father (Prisoner 335 – who, himself, was a POW prisoner), it’s a book about the incredible power of the human spirit. A stunning, wonderfully powerful book – probably in my all-time top ten list of books. Yes, THAT good!
Attention All Shipping (Charlie Connelly): Moira found this book in a charity shop and thought it would appeal to me. It’s essentially a book about the Shipping Forecast – or, rather, the thirty-one sea areas that make up the Met Office’s Shipping Forecast on Radio4. Connelly decides it would be a good idea to take a journey around all these sea areas. Frankly, it took me some time to “get into” the book. It seemed like a pretty spurious excuse for a book and, initially at least, I found his “humour” just a little tiresome and a “bit over-the-top”. However, I gradually warmed to both his task and his writing style and the book proved to be a fascinating, informative and amusing travel book.
Ariel (Sylvia Plath): Plath died in 1963. She committed suicide, aged just 30. She was married to Ted Hughes and I’d previously read his book of poems (“Birthday Letters”), published 35 years after Plath’s death. I have to admit I struggled somewhat with “Ariel” (published in 1965) – the writing is beautifully eloquent but, all too often, I found myself labouring over the meaning of individual poems (perhaps my intellect just wasn’t up to it?!) and yearned to read some background notes for each of them to help put them in context. I found them very dark and they frequently seemed to point to her impending suicide. Interestingly, I’ve just read an article by Lauren Niland in The Guardian, dated October 2012 (“Sylvia Plath – reviews from the archive”) in which she points out that: “The majority of her poetry was published posthumously, and most of the reviews of her work react against the knowledge of her suicide. Reading through reviews of her work, before her poetry became so intrinsically linked to her death, is an interesting experiment”… Bernard Bergonzi, for example, had reviewed her first collection of poems (published in 1960) and had admired Plath’s “highly personal tone and way of looking at the world", concluding that he "read this collection with considerable pleasure". By and large, it was only AFTER her death that her “Ariel” poems “established the idea that she raced headlong into suicide through her art”, as Niland puts it.
Starter For Ten (David Nicholls): This is a book (published in 2003) about a student (Brian Jackson) in his first year at university in 1985. The “Starter for Ten” title is a reference to Jackson’s place on the college’s University Challenge team. It felt like I was reading a book entitled “Adrian Mole, aged eighteen-and-a-quarter”… it was entertaining, funny and, at the same time, an excruciating reminder of all those embarrassing memories of my early years of university life (actually, not ALL my early memories are embarrassing, I hasten to add!). An enjoyable, albeit “unchallenging”, read.
Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton): Published in 1911, this short novel is about life in a fictional, desolate town in New England. Ethan Frome is a man with a history of thwarted dreams. He and his never-happy and sickly wife are joined by his wife’s cousin (who lives with them to help out around the house and farm). It’s a sad, haunting, compelling tale of their relationship – told in “flashback” form, 24 years after a life-changing incident. I found it a very good read.

Monday, April 25, 2016

music at saint stephen’s, bristol…

I know we’re coming a little late to the party (as it were), but Moira and I have been to a couple of excellent concerts at Saint Stephen’s Church – right in the heart of Bristol city centre – over the past three days.
The first one was last Saturday evening, entitled “Sanctuary”, hosted by Friendly Stage Bristol and Foundation Bristol, featuring The Rubber Wellies (followed by an Open Mic session) – in aid of the wonderful, local charity B-Friend, who work with refugees. Lots of happy people in attendance, a great atmosphere and fine music (and a lot of money raised for B-Friend). I think there’s another Friendly Stage evening being organised for later in the year.
The second was today’s “Monday Lunchtime Concert” (1.10-1.55pm and free!). These have been happening every week (except Bank Holidays) for quite a long time - certainly well before we became members of the Community of Saint Stephen’s, 9 months or so ago. Today’s concert featured the excellent singer songwriter Rosie Sleightholme (who has a voice to match Judy Collins and Eddi Reader and an ability to play guitar, ukulele, banjo and piano - plus, apparently, cello, violin, electric bass and zither(!) – to an extremely high standard!).

The type of music at these concerts varies. I see that May’s programme includes a jazz-rocker teaming up with a trumpeter; an eclectic concert featuring TWO double bassists; and a singer/guitarist playing Americana+Country Blues.
Not only that, there’s a concert this Thursday, 28 April at 8pm (tickets £7, I think?), featuring highly-acclaimed folk singer Saska Griffiths-Moore plus three other top Bristol female singers (tickets from www.bristolticketshop.co.uk).
Saint Stephen’s Café is also now open again and well worth a visit (9.30am-3.30pm Monday to Friday)… and features informal music sessions most Fridays in the café (one or two sets, sometime between 12 noon and 3pm). These have only recently started but, already, are proving to be very popular.
You can find out more on the Saint Stephen’s website: http://www.saint-stephens.com/

Talking to some of the people involved in organising these concerts/sessions, I sense that Saint Stephen’s is going to become an increasingly important centre for music and performance within the city over the next five years.
Exciting times!
Photos: Rosie Sleightholme at today’s lunchtime concert (top) and The Rubber Wellies at the “Sanctuary” concert on Saturday 23 April (bottom).

Monday, April 11, 2016

march-april 2016 books

More book stuff:
60 Degrees North (Mallachy Tallack): Tallack has spent most of his life in Shetland, which is itself on the sixtieth parallel. This is an account of the author’s journey westward, exploring the landscapes of the parallel (taking in such locations as Greenland, Alaska, Siberia and St Petersburg) before returning to Shetland. Tallack decided to make this journey not long after his father had died… and he admits that it was his “fixation” on the parallel that triggered his adventure (and hence this book). It felt a little like a pilgrimage that Tallack believed he’d been called to undertake before he felt able to accept Shetland as his “home”. It’s a very readable, frank and personal, book but one that, for me, lacked the quality and instincts of someone like Robert MacFarlane.
Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (E W Hornung): I bought this on a whim in a charity bookshop. The Raffles character has always had a vague appeal but, I have to admit, I was distinctly under-whelmed by these eight short stories. I didn’t find either the quality of the stories or the cleverness of the plots impressive in any way. Hornung had apparently been encouraged to write a series about a public school villain by his brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m afraid there is absolutely no contest between Raffles+Bunny and Holmes+Watson. Very disappointing.
My Life In Houses (Margaret Forster): This is our Book Group’s next book. I have to admit that this is my first Forster book, so I read it without having acquired any ‘baggage’ from her other work (I knew she was married to Hunter Davies, but that was about it). It’s an interesting format: an autobiography (of sorts) written through her experiences of the houses she has lived in during the course of her life. Her first home was a council house in Carlisle and, until her early 20s at least, she clearly struggled to make ends meet… but I later found myself getting a little annoyed when she (and her husband) – as a life time socialist - began acquiring another home in the Algarve and then one in the Lake District, and another one near their parents’ homes in Carlisle (and ended up living six months a year in the Lake District and six months in London). I have to say, I didn’t particularly warm to her as a person. The book was published in 2014 and was written after she’d been diagnosed with cancer again – she’d had breast cancer in the 1970 (she died in February 2016) – and, for me, it comes across as just an ordinary, light (if rather charming) reflection of her life through her various homes. I felt that “I could have written that” – and I must admit that it did make me starting to list the houses I’d lived in during the course of MY life! I suspect that in many ways it was written because she simply needed to keep on her routine of writing that had become her way of life. I can certainly empathise that one’s domestic surroundings affect one’s mood and quality of life, but I would have liked “people” to have featured rather more than they did.
A Clue To The Exit (Edward St Aubyn): Ok, here’s the scenario: a successful screenwriter, ex-husband and absent father has been given six months to live… he heads for the south of France and resolves to stake half his fortune on a couple of turns of the roulette wheel and to write a novel… about consciousness. The novel is awful (about “spiralling self-awareness”) and he gives it up… As far as the roulette wheel is concerned, he comes to an agreement with a sex-obsessed, compulsive gambling, woman – he will allow her one million francs a day in exchange for passionate sex in luxury hotels. This might sound absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking… actually, I found it somewhat tedious (but, then again, maybe I wasn’t clever enough to appreciate it?). I’ve seen the book described as a “subtly disturbing comedy”… well, it didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid!
Regeneration (Pat Barker): This is the first book of the “Regeneration Trilogy”… somewhat typically, I read book two first (last December)! The book is set in the Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland in 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked officers (soldiers from the ranks aren’t given such ‘consideration’) – with a view to making them fit(?) enough to return to the front-line in France. It weaves fact and fiction (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, in addition to Rivers, feature prominently). The books starts with Sassoon’s passionate declaration, written in July 1917 (which he described as “an act of wilful defiance of military authority”), against the prolongation of the war: “I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed”. It’s a powerful, inspiring, moving book which tells the chilling (largely previously-ignored) story of the ‘silenced voices’ from World War I. A frightening evocation of our attitude towards war (and its objectives of the time)… and the men brutalised by the experience.

Monday, March 28, 2016

iona (the film)...

Moira and I, along with friends Gareth, Alan, Eilidh and Ed went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Scott Graham’s film “Iona”. The storyline is about a woman called Iona (played by Ruth Negga) who, after a brutal crime, has sought refuge with her teenage son, Bull (played by Ben Gallacher), on the island of her birth that's also her namesake.
As you might imagine, having visited the island a number of times and having spent two months there as a volunteer with the Iona Community in 2012, this was obviously a must-see film for me… and so I spent a good deal of the film thinking to myself “yes, I know that place very well… and just down there lives so-and-so” and remembering the weekly ceilidh in the village hall (where we were NOT allowed any alcohol, incidentally!).   
Another plus-point was that the film also featured the excellent Douglas Henshall (who played Jimmy Perez in the “Shetland” TV series) as a widower crofter.
Graham makes excellent use of the Hebridean landscapes (even though the weather wasn’t as good as my time on the island in 2012!) and pays close attention to the part religion plays in the island's life (but perhaps a little too fleetingly to my mind?). He also deals sensitively with the courtship between Bull and a beautiful young girl (played by Sorcha Groundsell) who can't walk.
The film moves at a very slow pace and dialogue is relatively sparse… which seems only to accentuate the unspoken mystery of past events. The more we learn about the characters, the less mysterious they become. The plot is only revealed very slowly…
It would be wrong for me to give away too much about the storyline(!)… but it essentially involves guilt between members of a small family and one is left with the feeling that, within a tiny island community, “the truth will out, so don’t try to hide it”.
I’ve just read through some reviews of the film and some of them (particularly the American ones?) don’t seem to have much knowledge or comprehension of what it’s like to live on a tiny Scottish island such as this.
I enjoyed the film very much – although perhaps I’m slightly biased!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

more on academy schools...

You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t pretend to know the finer points of property law!
However, I do understand that, before the general election, councils in England held the title deeds to schools and land valued at over £2.5 billion.
Sadly, as far as I can tell, the government’s proposals for Academy Schools will have depressing and far-reaching (and probably irreversible) implications for education:
1. When a school becomes an academy, the title deeds of the school and the land are transferred to a private company

2. The government borrows £25,000 to pay the legal fees for the private companies to ensure the title deeds are transferred from the council (ie. us, the taxpayers who paid to build the schools) to these private companies.
3. To date, it seems that £1billion of title deeds for academy schools have been transferred from councils/taxpayers to private companies (high of it for legal fees alone).
It seems that Academy Schools are not primarily about education - they are about asset-stripping (with the directors and shareholders of the sponsoring private companies being the beneficiaries). I’ve come across one example of this via the internet – where an academy sold part of its school grounds to Sainsbury’s for £21million… and where the company running the academy is listed as operating from the Cayman Islands (ie. double whammy: with taxpayers missing out twice).
Be afraid. Be very afraid!
PS: if you know different and I’ve misunderstood things, please do let me know!

Friday, March 25, 2016

high-rise

Moira+I spent yesterday afternoon at the Watershed cinema, this time to see Ben Wheatley’s film “High Rise”, based on JG Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, and
with the excellent Tom Hiddleston playing the lead character (a well-off young surgeon who takes one of the bachelor flats near the top of a huge new apartment block).
One of my architectural heroes, Le Corbusier, saw the idea of the tower block as a way of providing spacious, peaceful, light-filled homes for the masses and, by building upwards, space would be liberated to surround such buildings with gardens and sports and cultural facilities. One of his most celebrated designs, built in 1952, was the 12-storey, "Unité d'Habitation" (originally called the “radiant city”) in Marseilles and included floors for shopping, social clubs, child care, a gym, a hotel, a rooftop garden and a swimming pool.
Well, this high-rise development, set in the 1970s (with Jeremy Irons playing the role of the block’s arrogant, somewhat demented, architect), is perhaps similar to Le Corbusier’s vision for living… but with added class conflict – a grand social experiment, a “crucible for change” (the lower classes live in cheaper flats on the lower floors, the middle classes on the middle floors and the upper classes “touching the sky”). Phrases like “know your place” and “don’t get ideas above your station” seemed particularly appropriate!
This building, however, also seems to be designed to isolate the occupants from the outside world, allowing for the possibility to create their own closed environment… but with the outdoor spaces appearing to consist mainly of car parking (with a very impressive array of vehicles from the1970s!).
It all disintegrates into the world reminiscent of an urban “Lord of the Flies”: life in the high-rise begins to degenerate quickly (perhaps a little too quickly in the film?), as power failures, refuse shoots blocked to capacity and petty annoyances among neighbours turn to violence. Scuffles are fought throughout the building, as floors try to claim lifts and hold them for their own. Groups gather to defend their rights to the swimming pools… and party-goers attack "enemy floors" to raid and vandalise them.
There were times when I felt the film was looking back on “class conflicts” of the present age (well, not class conflict exactly, more like the battle between society’s “haves” and “have-nots”)… and perhaps it does echo something of today’s capitalist world of rich, greedy landlords and how the less well-off are being forced out of cities, neighbourhoods and the like. I had expected to see a film that was a metaphor for today’s consumer culture, but it didn’t quite come across like that… and in many ways, I was a little disappointed.
I’ve never read any of Ballard’s books, but think of his work as being provocative, disturbing and frequently apocalyptic. This film was all those things…
Impressive, confusing, self-indulgent… and somewhat incoherent.
I think you probably need to see it for yourself.
PS: there were times when I almost found myself mixing up Hiddleston’s role with the one he’s playing currently in TV’s “The Night Manager”… (he's probably decided that this type of role earns him most money!).