Wednesday, March 25, 2015

golfing again… at last!

I played golf for only the second time in 27 months on Sunday. Ken, Steve+I played at my old Studley Wood Golf Club… on a most wonderful, sunny, cloudless March afternoon. My golf was pretty awful (theirs was rather good!), but it was just great to be on a golf course again… and with two of my very best friends.

Friday, March 13, 2015

love’s labour’s lost… and won

Moira and I immersed ourselves in a little Shakespeare yesterday by seeing back-to-back plays, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Love’s Labour’s Won” (otherwise known as “Much Ado About Nothing”) at the RSC in Stratford.
They were both simply stunning.
The plays, both directed by the excellent Christopher Luscombe, were staged to mark the centenary of the First World War. The productions were designed to straddle the Great War and both plays were to be set in a stately home (the originals were located on a country estate – “Lost” in northern Spain and “Won” in Sicily).
In the current production, “Lost” is set in June 1914 (two years before the start of WW1) and begins with four young men deciding to swear an oath to dedicate themselves to study for 3 years, giving up the “society of women”. No sooner have they signed their names than four attractive young ladies appear on the scene… and, of course, the men court the ladies and declare their undying love to each of them (I won’t go into details!). The play ends with the women insisting that the men show their commitment by waiting a year… and only then will they accept the men’s proposals. In the final scene, the men depart in military uniform to face the uncertainty and terror of war.
“Won” is set in December 1918. The war is over and soldiers are returning. The country house is recovering from having been pressed into service as a hospital during the war. It’s a time of huge relief for those who’ve survived the war… a time to pick up the pieces of life before the conflict, a time for love, for recovery and, for many, a time for reflection on events that had transpired, injuries endured and lives lost. However, it would take me far too long to go into all the details (and you probably know the plot any way – I think I must have seen the play at least four times?)… needless to say, it involves more love and conflict!
As you might imagine from the RSC, the acting across the entire company is absolutely excellent.  However, the stand-out stars are Edward Bennett (Berowne in “Lost” and Benedict in “Won”) and Michelle Terry (Rosaline in “Lost” and Beatrice in “Won”). Both actors truly captivated the audiences in both plays with performances that encapsulated passion, poignancy, tenderness and humour in huge measure (and when I say that the actors captivated the audiences, I really do mean it – at various times, Bennett and Terry really did have them in the palms of their hands (as it were). One moment laughing uncontrollably and the next desperately holding back the tears. The audiences absolutely adored them both.
Michelle Terry and Edward Bennett were utterly outstanding.
The music also played an important part in both productions. The company, as a whole, clearly includes some very gifted singers… and I particularly enjoyed composer Nigel Hess’s ability to blend the music of Cole Porter and Noel Coward (but, hey, what do I know?).
I’m always fascinated and amazed by the talents of the creative team in such productions. Simon Higlett’s design for both plays utilised elements from nearby Charlecote Park – with its twin octagonal  towers, lawns, imposing fa├žade and great hall – travelling through the house and grounds using a large sliding “truck” and a “substage trap” to make scene changes as swift as possible. Blimey, they were breath-takingly good!
A wonderful, truly memorable, theatrical experience.
PS: One massive bonus for us was that our lovely friend Sam Alexander was part of this remarkable and talented company (very impressively playing the King of Navarre in “Lost” and the rather sinister Don John in “Won”) and we enjoyed an excellent early supper with him at the RSC’s Terrace Restaurant between the plays!
PPS: I fell in love with Flora Spencer-Longhurst (who played Katherine in “Lost” and Hero in “Won”)!

Monday, February 16, 2015

february 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg): This is a strange book. I picked it up under the “Classics” section of the £3 book shop and decided to give it a go. Set in Scotland at the beginning of the 18th century, it was first published anonymously in 1824, as if it were the presentation of a found document from the previous century offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed author. Many of the events of the novel are narrated twice; first by the 'editor', who gives his account of the facts as he understands them to be, and then in the words of the 'sinner' himself.
It’s been described as a “study of religious fanaticism through its deeply critical portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination” – a mix of madness, the supernatural, and religious intolerance! Despite the book’s fictitious nature, it does provide a haunting reminder of the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century or, indeed, the radical Islamist group, the Islamic State (IS) of today in huge expanses of eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq.
A Delicate Truth (John Le Carre): This is our next Book Group book. I think it’s only the second Le Carre novel I’ve read. Amongst other things, this book is about the shadowy, apparently ever-expanding world of non-government insiders from banking, industry and commerce who have influence within the UK government. It might be fiction, but you get a firm sense of reality when it comes to descriptions of mandarins within the Foreign Office and dealings with influential, but unethical, private companies – especially those with interests in the arms trade. Morality (or lack of it) and conscience is at the heart of this novel - and a firm sense that politicians are betraying all of us. I enjoyed it, despite being left with a feeling that it was very formulaic in nature and simply the last of Le Carre’s production line (which is probably very unfair!). 
Lucia’s Progress (EF Benson): My fifth Benson “Mapp+Lucia” book (written in the 1920s and set in Rye). Beautifully observed. Funny... and all the other things I’ve written about the previous books in the series. Very pleasurable reading.  
Italian Ways (Tim Parks): Writer Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived in Italy for the past 30 years. This is a book about Italy, about Italians and about Italian railways. I’ve not a travel book… and, yet, perhaps it is. More than anything, it’s a charming, really rather lovely, gentle, amusing book about Italian ways… from the very good and the appalling bad barmen serving coffee in Milan station to the unfathomable depths of railway timetables (and trains) in Sicily. I loved it.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Benedicta Ward): This is a book of sayings of fourth century ascetics who fled to the desert to live out their Christian faith… and who were sought out by admirers for counsel. It’s a remarkable book about the desert fathers’ vision, courage, endurance and integrity. But, at times, it’s also completely bizarre and contains impenetrable (for me) and sometimes completely nonsensical (again for me!) snippets of “wisdom”. One of those books I’ll continue to dip into over the coming years.

Sunday, February 08, 2015


Last night, Moira+I went to listen to Lindsey Sharpe, from Ecumenical Accompaniment to Programme in Palestine+Israel (EAPPI). She talked about her experiences as one of EAPPI’s “ecumenical accompaniers” (EAs) in Jerusalem. EAPPI is a programme coordinated by the World Council of Churches founded in response to a call from the local Heads of Churches in Jerusalem that brings internationals to the West Bank. Since 2002, over 1,500 volunteers have worked in the West Bank for 3 months as EAs. EPPI’s mission is to witness life under occupation, engage with local Palestinians and Israelis pursuing a just peace, to change the international community’s involvement in the conflict, urging them to act against injustice in the region.
As we all know, this “peace process” has been (and continues to be) a long, frustrating, ugly business.
In 1993, with the Oslo Peace Accords, there was hope and engagement between Israel and the Palestinians. More than 20 years on, peace in the Middle East seems more remote than ever. One of the main reasons is undoubtedly Israel’s incessant settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In recent years, this policy has been preventing
the resumption of meaningful peace negotiations. But its negative impact goes much further: it threatens the viability of the two-state solution and therefore the very feasibility of peace.
The facts are frightening (taken from Trading Away Peace: How Europe helps sustain illegal Israeli settlements”, published in 2012):
1. There are now more than 500,000 Israeli settlers living in over 200 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The settler population has more than doubled since the conclusion of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, which were intended to provide a framework for ending the occupation.
2. The settler population is growing at a much faster rate (an average of 5.3% annually over the last decade) than the Israeli population as a whole (1.8%). Some of the largest settlements, such as Ma’ale Adummim, Ariel and Betar Illit are now sizable towns with tens of thousands of inhabitants.
3. During the past two years in particular, following the failure of US President Obama’s effort to convince the Israeli government to freeze settlement construction, settlement growth has markedly accelerated. More than 16,000 new housing units have been announced or approved since October 2010.
4. Over the same period, Israeli authorities have stepped up demolitions of Palestinian homes, while violent attacks by settlers against Palestinians have also sharply increased.
5. More than 42% of West Bank land and the majority of water and natural resources have been seized from Palestinians and allocated to settlements.
6. Settlements and the related infrastructure, including new road networks and the separation barrier, have carved up Palestinian communities into disconnected enclaves with movement controlled by checkpoints. This “land grab”, that has no legitimate security justification, has dramatically reduced the space available for Palestinians to develop livelihoods and construct housing and infrastructure. At the same time, settlements have been integrated with Israel proper, blurring the internationally accepted pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank.
7. Through the establishment of settlements, Israel has created a discriminatory two-tier regime in the West Bank with two populations living separately in the same territory under two different systems of law. While settlers enjoy all the rights and benefits of Israeli citizens, Palestinians are subject to a system of Israeli military laws that deprives them of their fundamental rights.
It shouldn’t be like this.
Despite the fact that, for decades, the United Nations has condemned the Israeli Occupation on numerous occasions and despite the fact that politicians have frequently voiced their disapproval of Israel’s actions, world leaders (including past world leaders, like Tony Blair in his so-called “peace envoy” capacity!) continue to be unable to instigate change.
Again and again, UN resolutions have been disregarded or the US administration has vetoed security council resolutions to condemn Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Between 2000-2011 (I don’t have recent figures), the US has used its veto 10 times, nine of which involved backing the Israeli side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that there are violations and atrocities carried out by BOTH sides. I, like most people, just want an end to the injustice of occupation and a lasting, peaceful solution.
There MUST be a better way.
Photo: maps which show the loss of Palestinian land between 1946 and 2005 (and it’s still happening)... sorry for the poor quality.
PS: Lindsey Sharpe finished her talk by showing this clip from Palestinian poet, Rafeef Ziadah. I’d seen it before, but it IS quite special.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

isolde, lauren bradford+julia turner at the folk house...

Moira, Gareth, Alan+I went along to the Folk House last night to hear these three singer/songwriter/musicians. They performed both individually (well, Lauren+ Julia with their respective bands and Isolde with her loop station!) and as a trio of unaccompanied voices. All three sing quite beautifully and their a capella renditions were simply stunning, entertaining and often very funny (I particularly liked their song “Cheer Up Gordon” - dedicated to “all those who ride on the London Underground on a daily basis”! They’re threatening to sing and film it on the Tube – and post it on YouTube, obviously... if they do, it’ll become VERY popular, mark my words!). Two hours of excellent music – ALL written by themselves.
Three very talented musicians. One very enjoyable evening (and a pretty cheap one too – tickets were just £7).  
Photo: Lauren Bradford, Julia Turner+Isolde at the Folk House.

Friday, January 23, 2015


I was given Martyn Bennett’s “Grit” album at the start of 2004 by my friend Jane Anderson. She told me that it was “something of an acquired taste, but I think you’ll love it”... or words to that effect!
Well, she was absolutely right and I have LOVED it ever since.
What I hadn’t appreciated at that time was that Bennett dying of cancer (he’d struggled with cancer throughout his adult life)... and, in fact, he died in January 2005, aged just 32. He’d been a gifted piper and, in 1986, he became the first traditional musician enrolled into classical conservatoire of the City of Edinburgh Music School. In “Grit”, his final, remarkable work, he somewhat controversially (understatement!) mixed Scottish bagpipe and fiddle music with techno beats... plus the voices of Scottish travellers from the 1950s. This might sound completely bizarre, but the end result is truly remarkable. Believe me!
The album’s title came from his illness: "Cancer is a piece of grit inside your soul which you can't get out, so you have to try and make something of it. But grit is also rock salt, an old medicine. I also see it as representative of cultures trying to survive."
Then this morning – completely out of the blue – I noticed an iPlayer link my good friend Joe Heap (of Towersey Festival fame etc etc) on facebook to a television programme on iPlayer (Celtic Connections: Opening Concert: Martyn Bennett’s “Grit”). Thank you, thank you, Joe!! Greg Lawson (a friend of Bennett’s and a notable musician in his own right) had put together his own arrangement of the album at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – featuring 80 musicians and singers.
The result is TRULY exhilarating.
It’s very difficult to find the “right” words to describe the concert... uplifting, stunningly beautiful, spiritual... moving (I cried!). Inevitably, the concert rendering is very different from Bennett’s studio version (in latter the years of his illness, he became unable to play instruments and had to resort to mixing old vinyl recordings in his studio in Mull), but this wonderful, passionate concert performance was something to behold.   
Clearly the audience thought it was pretty amazing too (the concert had been a sell-out as soon as tickets became available).
I just wish I could have been there.
PS: As you might have gathered, I REALLY think you need to see+listen to this concert on iPlayer! Watch it and be sure to turn up the volume!!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

january 2015 books

More book stuff:
Meetings With Remarkable Men (GI Gurdjieff): I first read this book in 1981 (although I have a feeling that I didn’t finish it). Gurdjieff was born near the Russian frontier with Persia in 1877. He trained as a priest and a phusician and then spent 20 years travelling in the remote regions of Central Asia (supporting himself throughout in a wide variety of trades), thinking, learning and absorbing ancient knowledge. This book is a strange mixture of traveller’s tales, myth, legend+autobiography and formed the basis of three books (this is the second) teaching his system of “knowledge”. He established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man near Paris in 1922. Despite the fact that I frequently found his observations were conveyed using something akin to Ronnie Corbett’s story-telling technique (ie. “Two Ronnies” sketches – with endless deviations and constant tangents!), I thought it was a fascinating book – if somewhat egotistical!
Fathomless Riches (Revd Richard Coles): I enjoy listening to Coles on Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” programme and Moira is a great twitter-follower of his(!). This is an unusual autobiography! Telling his story from his school days as head chorister, his time as a 1980’s rock star, his sexual awakening, drugs, broadcasting and, ultimately, being ordained in the Church of England. It’s a frank, honest and absorbing memoir – although I get a strange feeling (the book “ends” in 2005) that this is just the first in a series! In the book, I thought he came across as a rather vain individual who enjoyed being in the limelight and who seemed to pursue one fad after another (but perhaps I’m being a little unfair?). Not quite what you’d expect from a vicar perhaps(?)… although maybe he’s changed over the past 9 years or so.
A Journey (Tony Blair): I knew that, at some stage, I would read Blair’s 2010 autobiography (and couldn’t resist buying a new hardback copy for just £2!). I also knew that I’d be impressed (and even taken in by) his eloquence, ability to argue a case and his passion (in fact, I even scribbled a note to myself along these lines before I’d even started reading it, as a reminder… and also resolving that “it wouldn’t change my disdain that I now had for the man following the debacle of the Iraq bombing”!)(which I haven’t!). Well, I have now read the book (all 691 pages of it!). I have to say, I do just LOVE political biographies. It is an absolutely fascinating book – encompassing all my anticipated sentiments. As far as I can tell, it’s a very honest book – or is just me being taken in by the skill of successful politician? – and does provide a unique insight into the role and the required talents of a world leader. It was particularly absorbing reading his “take” on the Gordon Brown/Tony Blair Labour leadership battle (and “succession”). The book certainly took me back to that wonderful, joyous May morning in 1997 when Labour came into power after 13 years of Tory rule. There’s no doubt that Blair was (and still is?) a brilliantly talented politician and, with 7 years as a barrister behind him, was perfectly set for the role of Prime Minister. He clearly had/has an ability to think on his feet, absorb massive amounts of detail, to have “vision” and to articulate his thoughts supremely well. I think, in his early days as PM, he probably came across as a “man of the people” (and probably rightly so) but, over the course of his premiership, I think he became arrogant (yes, I know that all leaders probably need a little arrogance!) and even smug. For me, his style became too “presidential” and almost messianic in character… and his politics rather too “Tory” for my liking (or am I just being unfair?). I was also left with the overriding sense that anyone who has the ambition to be prime minister in this day and age of 24/7 media coverage, in a world of instant communication and, it seems, ever-increasing complexities… must be absolutely MAD! Whatever your politics, this is a totally absorbing, very well written and fascinating book.       
Brief Lives: EM Forster (Richard Canning): I came across this “short, authoritative” biography shortly after reading Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” – when I realised that I knew next to nothing about him (apart from some of his books). Strangely, Forster (1979-1970) had written his six novels by 1924 (drawing on a small body of experience, all over by his 30th birthday) and spent much of his later life writing literary reviews and short stories, travelling and broadcasting. He was homosexual – although only close friends were aware of this (he was desperately keen to keep this from his mother; his novel “Maurice”, a homosexual love story, was written in 1913-14, but not published until after his death) - and a humanist (President of Cambridge Humanists 1959-70). Canning’s short book providees an excellent summary of Forster’s life. My favourite quote from the book is an observation made in 1914, aged 35, when he lamented the intrusion of ‘the telephone and the bicycle, which have between them done so much to disintegrate family life’! As a fan of the TV programme “Only Connect”, I really should have been aware that its title was taken from the epigraph to Forster’s 1910 novel, “Howard’s End”! I probably now need to read “Passage To India”…
Blue Nights (Joan Didion): As you are probably already aware, Didion is a hugely-respected writer and journalist – famous in intellectual circles for her incisive commentaries on American politics and culture. Her husband John Gregory Dunne (novelist, screenwriter and literary critic) died in 2003 and she wrote an apparently brilliant book (“The Year of Magical Thinking” – something I’ve yet to read, but I will!) about their life together and her subsequent experiences of grief. “Blue Nights” begins on 26 July 2010 (the date of her adopted daughter’s seventh wedding anniversary). Her daughter died in March 2009, aged 39 and this book is about recollections of motherhood, parenting, pain and loss... and her own ageing process and frailty (she was 75 when she wrote “Blue Nights”). It’s a beautifully-written, controlled, raw, honest and haunting memoir.