Thursday, May 21, 2015

april-may 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Same Door (John Updike): This book of Updike short stories, first published in 1959, beautifully captures a sense of that era. They’re a strange combination of tales and the only common denominator seems to be the ordinariness of their situations (and, for perhaps for half of them, smoking features as a dominate factor!). Enjoyable and entertaining – although of rather mixed quality in my humble view.
Not Forgetting The Whale (John Ironmonger): This is a haunting, but rather beautiful and uplifting, novel. It speculates some fifty years hence and contrasts the frenetic, greedy world of City traders with the tranquility of a Cornish fishing village as the global economy collapses, inter-connected supply chains fail and disease kills millions across the world. The story is intriguing – even if some of the characters seem to be cartoonishly predictable! Essentially, it speculates on how we might behave when the end is nigh and about the innate goodness of people and our connections with the wider world.
Ladies’ Mile (Victoria Hughes): I would never have read this brief, modest book if it wasn’t for two things: a) Jodie Marks’ wonderful “Edwardian Cloakroom” exhibition in March (in which she made reference to this book) and b) Moira getting the book out of the library following a conversation with Jodie (and me then borrowing it!). Published in 1977 (edited by David Foot), Victoria Hughes, in her own words, recounts her experiences as a cloakroom attendant from 1929 until the early 1960s. Much of this time, she looked after the ladies’ loos on Bristol’s spacious Durdham Downs and discovered the ways of the twilight world in Ladies’ Mile (through her job, she became the confidante of many women, including scores of small-time “tarts”). It’s a rather lovely book – and provides a fascinating social history on a small part of Bristol life, especially during the Depression of the 1930s. 
The Wilt Alternative (Tom Sharpe): I see from my scribbled note on the flysheet that I first read this 34 years ago (blimey!). I think I’ve actually read all of Sharpe’s books. I’m afraid I resorted to it as an antidote to my general election gloom! It’s the continuing saga of Henry Wilt, a lecturer at a Technical College, “innate coward and hen-pecked husband”. It’s crude, farcical and outrageous, but VERY funny. I may have to “escape” into more Sharpe books over the coming months!
Etta+Otto+Russell+James (Emma Hooper): Etta’s greatest unfilled wish is to see the sea. So, at the age of eighty-two, she sets out very early one morning from her Saskatchewan home and begins walking the 2,000 miles to the water. It’s a book about aging (I seem to have read a number of these over the past year or so!), about memory, about what might have been… and about what has been. Otto is her husband, Russell is a close family friend... and James – well, I’ll leave you to discover who he is. At first, it felt a little like reading “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” (which I loved) and, although I was relishing the prospect of reading the book, it actually took me a little time to get into it. However, once I’d got accustomed to its lyrical prose and gentle rhythm, I loved it. Very inventive and quite moving.   

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

clouds of sils maria

I went to the Watershed cinema for the first time in what seems like ages yesterday to see Olivier Assayas’s film “Clouds of Sils Maria” featuring Juliette Binoche (Maria Enders) and Kristen Stewart (Valentine). For me, Binoche is the film equivalent of music’s Joni Mitchell and, although I might be slightly biased(!), I thought her performance was absolutely mesmerising. Just wonderful. The film has vague autobiographical links with Binoche’s own career – Assaysa had kick-started her stardom in the mid-80s as co-writer of “Rendez-vous”. She plays a famous French actress whose big break was playing the young lead role in a play 20 years ago. Now she’s given the opportunity to star in the revival of the play, only this time as an older woman opposite the character for which she became known.
Stewart plays the part of Maria’s intelligent, on-the-ball, techno-savvy, personal assistant and is quite, quite brilliant. They hide themselves away in the recently deceased playwright’s Wlhelm Melchoir’s Alpine home to undertake line readings of the play, “Maloja Snake” (where he wrote the play – a reference to the cloud formations that occasionally snake through the valley). As they do so, their relationship begins to mirror and complicate that of the women in the play…
I think you need to see it!




Sunday, May 10, 2015

election reflections...

There is a really lovely photograph of Ed+Justine Miliband and their two sons in today’s Observer (see above!). They look very happy… and perhaps, after the hugely-disappointing election result, just relieved that they’re going to get their lives back again. Despite the election outcome, I’m genuinely very pleased for them and wish them well.

Although I’m a Green Party member these days, I wanted Labour to form the next government – in alliance with the minor parties.
The fact remains that the Tories won… with a clear majority. I freely admit that I’m still feeling somewhat numb… and sad… and very depressed at the “prospect” of what the new government has in store for us over the next five years.
Following Thursday’s outcome, I’ve been reading comments from various pundits and politicians (usually “former”) who claim that the only way Labour will regain power is to re-join the centre ground of politics. They may well be correct but, in many ways, I feel that Labour could actually be criticised for being only marginally to the left of the Conservatives(!) – often, it seemed, they were merely following on the tails of the Tory policy (or, on occasions, having the government taking on Labour’s own initiatives).

I think it’s been fascinating how successful the SNPs have been in communicating their “austerity policies” to the public – in Scotland and through the UK – and how, time and time again, Nicola Sturgeon was hailed as the “winner” of the television debates.
The key fact was that she delivered her message with passion, intelligence and conviction AND had the ability to respond effectively whenever she was challenged by her opponents.
I thought Ed Miliband did well in the final election run-in… but the trouble was, in my view, that it was too late to have any real effect.
I absolutely HATE the whole process of Prime Minister’s Questions and all that its yah-boo, them-against-us politics stand for. Sadly, this isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, time and time again, I think the Tories were able to “win” the majority of these encounters. The same could be said of the Osborne-Balls battles.
So, until the Labour Party is able to come up with a leader (plus other key front-bench figures) who has the charisma, wit and intelligence (along with the agile mind of a top lawyer!)… someone like Blair (I’m afraid to say!), I think they’re going to continue to struggle.

In 2010, I actually thought Ed Miliband would make the best leader… and I think I’ve been proved wrong! I had hoped that the 2014 Scottish Referendum was going inspire the population and political parties alike to make last week’s general election DIFFERENT. Well, it was (to some extent – with massive involvement from Greens and UKIP), but our ridiculous first-past-the-post system can’t cope with a “new” style of politics! In the event, 63% of the population did NOT vote for the Conservatives… and, sadly, although the turn-out was the highest for 18 years, ONE in THREE of the population failed to vote! Clearly, the current government won’t be interested in changing the present system!! I’ve just re-read one of my blog posts from last year and it’s sobering to note that three of the seven leading Labour politicians pictured lost their seats last week.
The really, REALLY sad thing, in my opinion, was that Labour were pretty appalling in opposition (and it pains me to say that). They missed countless “open goals”. They SHOULD have been keeping the Tories in check week in week out. They SHOULD have been constructively critical about SO many government policies. They SHOULD have been winning most of the key arguments… but they didn’t. As the Green Party’s economic spokesperson, Molly Scott Cato MEP, so clearly outlined in the “New Statesman”: Labour’s failure was its willingness to “accept the narrative of its opponents" (her article is well worth reading).

In the meantime, we face five years (at least) of Tory government and the difficulties that this will inevitably bring to many. I think my good friend Bruce Stanley got it right on facebook this morning when he observed: “not sure about PR, but what is the system (probably the Borgen system) that would miraculously see Caroline Lucas as PM?”
PS: I don’t know who will be the next Labour Party leader (I just hope the process is quick – unlike the painful, prolonged course of action last time!). I don’t think there are any stand-out candidates. People like Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Maria Eagle and David Lammy are all excellent politicians, but I don’t see any of them as “ideal” Leaders. In my view, the closest they may have is Chuka Umunna (Shadow Business Secretary before the election) – I recall mentioning him on facebook a couple of years ago after watching him in a television interview. He’s written an interesting article in today’s Observer about where he thinks Labour went wrong and what he thinks they need to do to regain power (ie. effectively throwing his hat into the ring as far as the leadership is concerned!)… you can almost hear the “why-didn’t-he-say-this-earlier?” shouts! It includes the following about aspirations (which I wouldn’t argue with): “Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to that house with a garden. That means offering competence, optimism not fatalism, an end to machine politics, an economic credo that is both pro-worker and pro-business and, most of all, a politics that starts with what unites us as a country rather than what divides us”. The trouble is, we’ve become very cynical when it comes to politicians (surely not!) and writing rousing sentiments such as these is the easy bit… inspiring us all to believe it’s achievable is the real challenge.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

southbank bristol arts trail 2015

It’s the thirteenth Southbank Bristol Arts Trail on Saturday+Sunday 16+17 May.
We’ve participated every year since moving from Oxfordshire (this year will be our 12th year). In fact, the very first morning of the very first Arts Trail in 2003 was the day we first viewed our house. There were an awful lot of smiley people roaming the local streets and popping into each others’ houses to view art! It felt like a very vibrant, arty area… and just the sort of place we were looking for. We made an offer for the house the same day!
We ended up converting the two basement bedrooms, so we could use them as studio space… and duly joined the arts trail the following May.
For us, it’s always been a bit of a family affair (two of our three daughters also live in Bristol) and this year Moira, Ruth, Hannah, Stuart (Ruth’s husband) and I will be exhibiting work alongside three of our lovely friends Jen, Sarah and Anna.
These days, we attract over 500 people down into our basement every Arts Trail weekend – so, if you’re in the Bristol area next weekend, please do come and see us!
PS: if you just can’t wait to see all the beautiful art (or if you just fancy a glass of something!), you could even drop round on Friday evening 15 May 7-9.30pm… it would be LOVELY to see you!!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

the incredible paul bradley at arnos vale…

Moira+I went along to a concert at the elegant Anglican Chapel at the wonderful Arnos Vale cemetery last night. Yes, this might sound a little bizarre, but it really is an excellent concert venue (Ruth+I went to a Daisy Chapman concert there a couple of years ago)!
I’ve previously posted a couple of times (here and here) about Paul Bradley (he’s also a member of my one of my favourite “bands” Three Cane Whale) and last night marked the official launch of his “Banish Cherish” CD – which I’ve possessed since the end of last year (and which continues to be my current favourite album!).
Last night was the first time I’d actually seen him perform in a solo capacity. I just KNEW it was going to be a wonderful experience and so it proved. Yes, he’s a highly-gifted guitarist (he also plays perhaps another dozen instruments!), but he’s also an astonishing vocalist - who truly uses his voice as another instrument. Oh, and he’s also a composer of music! He’s an artist in the true sense of the word. At one stage last night, he played what was effectively an improvised piece, with loop technology, on his own for perhaps 35 minutes, non-stop (literally)… it was completely mesmerising. Utterly captivating.
He’s an amazing, unique musician. A genius.
I recently tried to describe his music to a friend… and blurted out something along the lines of “well, I think he’s incomparable… perhaps John Martyn might come closest to a comparison with a bit of Mark Hollis or Frank Zappa thrown in, sometimes maybe, or even Tom Waite on occasions… actually, his voice also seems to go from maybe choral through to folk, jazz and blues… oh, and he whistles beautifully too”. Needless to say, my friend ended up none the wiser (and I realised I hadn’t come even close to describing him)!
Believe me, if you get a chance to see this man perform live, grab it!
But, in the meantime, just buy his CD for £7.99… you will NOT be disappointed!
Photo: a somewhat blurred image from last night’s concert.
PS: “advance sale” tickets for the concert were just £5 each(!) – how RIDICULOUSLY cheap for what proved to be a brilliant evening.
PPS: he’s also a bloomin’ nice bloke!
PPPS: sorry that the album purchase link is via Amazon!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

march-april 2015 books

More book stuff:
South (Sir Ernest Shackleton, edited by Peter King): This book gives Shackleton’s account of his Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17. It’s grim, gruelling stuff in terrifying conditions (and all undertaken with no communication with the outside world!). Edmund Hillary is quoted as saying: “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton”. After reading this book (and I’d previously read “Endurance”), it would be difficult to argue against Hillary. This edition (bought for £3 instead of the original £20!) – which includes Frank Hurley’s stunning photographs – also contains Peter King’s fascinating additional notes based on recent research and provides fresh insights into Shackleton’s life and methods (eg. major defects in his organisation, inadequate finance, lack of training provided for his crew, failure to provide proper supplies of food … and other various ancillary issues: his womanising, his temper, his disregard for his parents in their declining years, his attitude towards his wife and children – including living off his wife’s money etc). Nevertheless, despite all this, Shackleton (who was almost worshipped by the team in his charge) was clearly a remarkable individual and a highly-gifted “leader of men”. A truly epic, harrowing story.
The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (Owen Jones): A very special book. I’ve been a great admirer of Jones’s articles in The Guardian over the past couple of years and also heard him talk at Bristol’s Festival of Ideas last October. A tough book about how we’ve all been stitched up by The Establishment (well, that’s his view and, frankly, I wouldn’t argue with him at all). It left me feeling angry (that we’re being hood-winked), enlightened and frustrated. Hugely impressive (I also blogged about it here).
The Long March (William Styron): A novella that I first read 20 years ago. Eight Marines are killed by misfired mortar shells whilst training in Carolina in preparation for the Korean War. The battalion Colonel calls for a 36-mile forced march to inculcate discipline. The march itself takes up less than half the book, but Styron’s prose is powerfully explicit… “a study in the pathological absurdity of military exercises”.
Utz (Bruce Chatwin): I love reading Chatwin. He writes beautifully… and with humour and great knowledge (especially if it involves art and/or travel). This is only a very short book (of some 150 pages?) and I first read it probably 15 years ago. The narrator goes to Prague in 1967 (a year before the Soviet tanks overran Czechoslovakia – I was in Yugoslavia at that time) to track down a man rumoured to have an incredible collection of Meissen china. The story is essentially an investigation into art, collecting and passion.
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Hilary Mantel): This is our book group’s next book. Published in 1988, this novel provides a pretty frightening account of life in Saudi Arabia as experienced by a British couple living in an expatriate compound (the husband working as an engineer on a massive construction project and accompanied by his wife). The position of women in this Muslim kingdom and their secluded lives; the wealth and power of the royal family; the attitudes of men; the fear; the rumours; the rules that need to be obeyed; the rats and the cockroaches… It’s all the more real because Mantel herself had lived in the kingdom for four years and she had experienced things that the vast majority of journalists and politicians would never face. It’s a compelling nightmare of a book and beautifully written and observed.

Friday, April 03, 2015

it really doesn’t have to be like this…

I didn’t watch last night’s TV Election Debate (I was at a meeting), but I think I’d caught up with most of it by breakfast time. It was, of course, all a little artificial but I thought that Nicola Sturgeon gave a pretty effective lesson in how to challenge the government’s record in office.  

I went to hear Owen Jones speak last October as part of Bristol’s brilliant “Festival of Ideas”. This is what I wrote on my blog at that time:
"Over the past year or so, I’ve become a great admirer of Owen Jones’s writing (he’s a regular columnist in The Guardian). Yes, he’s left-wing. Yes, he’s young (30!). But he’s also incredibly bright… and he talks an awful lot of sense (well, in my view at least). He’s recently written a book – “The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It” – and this formed the basis of the session. He talked for an hour (the first half an hour about the things included in the book and then another 30 minutes of questions-and-answers). He’s a remarkable and very gifted young man. He’s the sort of person who has the ability to express concerns on behalf of many of us who have become disillusioned with “establishment politics”. With certain exceptions, he doesn’t have a particularly high regard for our current batch of politicians (of whatever party)… in a recent article in the Guardian, he described them as “technocratic, rootless, soulless; a professionalised morass of time-servers who see ministerial posts as springboards to nice little earners on corporate boards; manoeuvring constantly not on the basis of political principle but for shameless self-advancement”!
There was nothing particularly startling (or new) in what he said last night (eg.
lobbyists who fund the thinktanks that influence the government, or the owners who appoint the editors who set the political agenda, or the tax accountants who get seconded to the civil service that decides how much their clients will pay), it’s just that I found myself agreeing with point after point he was making (and so did the vast majority of the full-house attending last night). His talk was very much a “call to arms” – to scrutinise the powerful (the corporations, the politicians etc) in these austere times and to redress the balance away from the poor, who are all too often (according to politicians and much of the media) blamed for our current financial predicament. Amen to that!
We all need people who make us think, who give us hope, who challenge us… and who encourage us to make our voice heard.”

Well, I’ve now read his book and would highly recommend it – whatever your own political leanings. I can almost certainly guarantee this: it will make you angry... and frustrated.

Last September, I wrote a blogpost about my political frustrations. This is the opening paragraph: “Somehow, last weekend, after the Scottish Referendum which saw a 84.5% voter-turnout, I was heartened to read articles from a couple of journalists making observations such as: ‘This campaign wasn’t about politicians persuading people how to vote, but people persuading politicians…’ and ‘On both sides of the referendum, people were energised by an astonishing proposition: take everything you're used to in politics and imagine you could put it to one side and start again. At that, the people did the talking and politicians were forced to listen’”.
The following day, I joined the Green Party.
I don’t pretend that this will change the world or that lots of other people will be persuaded to do likewise. Indeed, with the continuation of a “first-past-the-post” electoral system, many might view my Green vote as a “wasted vote”.
I would disagree.

BUT I would like to think that, with a General Election only a matter of some 30 days hence, maybe, just maybe, there’s still time for people to be shaken into voting for POLICIES rather than knee-jerk party politics?
Afterall, the SNP lost the Scottish Referendum – although you’d never think so in the aftermath that has seen them surge in terms of support. Whatever your political allegiances, perhaps for the first time for many of us, I think people REALLY did see through the last-minute panic measures of the Big Two parties… and came to realise that, DESPITE all the efforts of the press and the major political forces, the views of ordinary PEOPLE could actually start to make a difference. For example, although I absolutely abhor UKIP’s policies, I entirely acknowledge their right to be heard. For many people, voting UKIP in the European parliamentary elections was a protest against the cosy politics of the London-centric, Westminster village… and it really scared the major parties. I think the Greens, too (especially here in the south-west), have been justifiably gaining a lot of support from people who see them as speaking up for them.

I don’t know about you, but when I watch or listen to “Prime Minister’s Question” each Wednesday, it just makes me weep. I find the insults and exchanges from both sides utterly embarrassing and depressing.
It shouldn’t be like this. We need it to change. We need to make politicians listen to the electorate.
To paraphrase Owen Jones, we need to prevent the Establishment from continuing to get away with it!
Perhaps, over the coming days leading up to the General Election, I might post a few quotes from Owen Jones’s book via facebook - NOT to annoy you (hopefully) or to persuade you, but simply to make you think twice before you vote.
Now, there’s a challenge!
Photo: from the Huffington Post