Saturday, July 25, 2015

still 7 weeks to go before the labour party gets a new leader…

At the end of a week that saw much Labour Party embarrassment over the welfare vote, it’s been fascinating reading some of the newspaper comment regarding the Labour leadership contest (which is still 7 weeks away!).
Some 55,000 new people have signed up to Labour since its crushing election defeat in May. A third of them are under 30 and their most common age is 18. They seem to be flocking to Jeremy Corbyn.

These are just a few things I’ve picked up during the course of the past couple of days regarding Jeremy Corbyn and the contest:
The 'left-wing' policies of Jeremy Corbyn the public actually agrees with (The Independent: 25 July 2015):
1.     The public overwhelmingly backs renationalising the railways 
2.     There's a public appetite for a 75% top rate of tax on incomes over £1m
3.     Two thirds of Brits want to see an international convention on banning nuclear weapons
4.     Six out of ten people want to see rents controls on landlords
5.     The public support a mandatory living wage
6.     Jeremy Corbyn wants to cut tuition fees and so does the public
7.     The public were on the same side as Jeremy Corbyn in Iraq War debate 
8.     The public were also in sync with Corbyn when it came to bombing Syria
Andrew Grice, The Independent (24 July): “If Labour members want to be part of a pressure group, railing impotently against the nasty Tories for the next 20 years, they should vote for Mr Corbyn.  If they want to change the country, they should back someone else.”
Robin Lustig, Huffington Post (24 July 2015): Here's what I think Labour party members want: a party that speaks up for those who have least and need most; that develops policies to distribute the nation's wealth more fairly; and that believes everyone deserves an equal chance to make the most of what life offers... And here's the central dilemma: for reasons that many party activists struggle to comprehend, not enough voters seem to agree with them (a) that these are laudable objectives, or (b) that voting for the Labour party is the best way to achieve them... There's an uncomfortable, but unavoidable, truth in all democracies: however high-minded your goals, you won't get a chance even to try to reach them unless you win an election. So all those people you want to help will remain unhelped - until and unless you can persuade enough people to vote for you…
After two successive election failures, Labour is now in deep mourning. That's why it's going through the five classic stages of grief: denial… anger… bargaining… depression… and finally comes acceptance. And that's when it'll be time to elect a new leader. Unfortunately, the timetable says different, so the new leader will be elected less than mid-way through the grieving process. It's like asking someone who's just been bereaved to choose a new partner within a week of the funeral…”
Charlotte Church’s Blog (24 July): The inverse of Nigel Farage, he (Corbyn) appears to be a cool-headed, honest, considerate man, one of the few modern politicians who doesn't seem to have been trained in neuro-linguistic programming, unconflicted in his political views, and abstemious in his daily life. He is one of the only politicians of note that seems to truly recognise the dire inequality that exists in this country today and actually have a problem with it. There is something inherently virtuous about him, and that is a quality that can rally the support of a lot of people, and most importantly, a lot of young people… What I can say is that for the first time in my adult life there is a politician from a mainstream party who shares my views and those of most people I know, and also has a chance of actually doing something to create a shift in the paradigm, from corporate puppetry to conscientious societal representation… The hysteria that has rendered certain members of the Labour party catatonic, and has the right wing press rubbing its hands together in glee, is ultimately based on nonsense. The fact is that this election is not for the position of king of kings but for the leader of a party of equals. No matter how far left Jeremy Corbyn is, if he is voted leader he will have to represent a party that is jam packed with shy Tories and Blairites. He would be dragged towards the centre ground anyway. But he would have galvanised the support of many disparate factions of society, who didn't vote in the general election, or who voted Ukip, or maybe even some of those who voted Tory”.
Editorial, Guardian (25 July): Politics moves in cycles and some are more vicious than others. A deadly one is the spiral into irrelevance after defeat. The losing side is more interesting to its core voters than to the mainstream of the electorate, which moves on…
All candidates must turn their attention to more forward-looking alternatives. The challenge for Mr Corbyn’s rivals is to match his crusading passion while leading the debate back to a discussion of the country Labour would aspire to lead in 2020. In that sense the defenders and critics of New Labour are both right. The party needs a transition equal in scale to its 1990s journey from opposition but very different in content. If it continues down the current path of retrospection and introspection, Labour will face not just defeat but obsolescence…”
Jonathan Freedland, Guardian (25 July): “What’s needed instead, one enthusiast for Corbyn told me, is “someone who can articulate what you feel”. The key is “to have someone who represents what you believe in. Why does it matter whether other people believe it or not?... All this has consequences for those who would like to halt Corbyn’s march to the leadership. It means they have to find a different way to talk to those drawn to the rebel backbencher. Sounding like the grownups lecturing the kids won’t do it. Hurling insults won’t help either. Nor will talk of electability, if what’s at play here is a matter of identity. They’d be talking at cross purposes. Instead, Labour’s pragmatists will somehow have to match the excitement that’s been unleashed. The prospect of Labour’s first female leader could be a starting point. Having the chance to oust the Tories before today’s 20-year-olds turn 40 might be another. But ultimately those unwilling to face a lifetime of opposition will have to persuade their fellow party members that an identity built on the purity of impotence is not much of an identity at all”.
James Walsh, Guardian (24 July):  Why are Labour voters turning towards Jeremy Corbyn? Quotes from some of the 2,500 replies sent to the Guardian on the leadership contest… these are some of the views from people who plan to vote for Corbyn:
‘If it makes Labour less likely to win then so be it’
‘He’s no messiah. But he’s perhaps the start of a debate we need’
‘I do not believe that Miliband dragged the party as far left as many would have us believe’
‘Labour has just decisively lost an election trying to copy the Conservatives’
‘Labour have become like desperate sales people who will say anything’”.

Clearly, the Tories are really enjoying the leadership contest. No doubt, they would love Corbyn to win… they’ll be able to re-use all their “Red Ed” jibes and a few more besides (although I suspect that Corbyn, if elected leader, would surprise them with the tenacity of his arguments) and, on current form, they will have absolutely no worries regarding the other candidates – who haven’t exactly shone thus far. I think this week’s poll suggesting that Corbyn is now the clear favourite to be elected leader (but, after the general election, who could possibly believe the polls?) will be a real wake-up call for Kendall, Cooper and Burnham. Thus far, the other candidates seem to have had very lack lustre (and rather mixed) messages for the Labour Party electorate… they seem hell bent on being all things to all people - trying not to offend potential supporters, but not actually appearing to have any clear vision (or passion or understanding) for either the party or the country.
They’ve got seven weeks to turn things around… and I’m not at all certain that they will.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

july 2015 books

More book stuff:
Arabian Sands (Wilfred Thesiger): I first read this over 20 years ago and it remains one of my favourite books of “all time” (I simply love reading about deserts – that is, before many of them were taken over by the petroleum industry!). The book was first published in 1959 and describes Thesiger’s journeys made in and around the Empty Quarter of Arabia from 1945 to 1950. It’s a brilliant, vivid account of his remarkable life among the Arabs – travelling huge distances across vast and waterless desert land, riding camels or accompanying them on foot… without reliance on cars/airplanes and with no wireless contact with the outside world. As Thesiger himself acknowledged, the book is a “memorial to a vanished past… and a tribute to a once magnificent people”. A stunning book.
Unseen Things Above (Catherine Fox): I find it a little baffling to acknowledge that I’ve become a fan of fictional tales about the Anglican Church (entirely thanks to Moira)! Actually, more accurately, I’ve become a huge fan of author Catherine Fox. This is the second book of hers that I’ve read and, like the previous one, I really enjoyed it. Fox is a very gifted, clever writer with a wonderful turn of phrase (utterly hilarious at times) and an ability to convey poignant insights about the Church and some of its people. I still struggle with trying to come to terms with the Anglican Church and all its idiosyncrasies… but Fox has become a great help in my quest.       
Swan (Mary Oliver): This book of Oliver’s poetry was published in 2010 and I was drawn to her writing by our great friend Gail Adams who frequently makes reference to Oliver in the course of her own work. Although I’m very new to Oliver’s work, I’ve been hugely impressed by her ability to say profound things simply. I also love her poignant observations of the natural world and her empathy for solitude - she makes me think and reflect. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her poetry over the coming months/years.
Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf): Published in 1925, this novel interweaves two seemingly unconnected storylines that take place during a single day in June 1923. One involves Clarissa Dalloway, the fifty-something wife of an MP, who is reflecting on her past (as she prepares to host an evening party) - including her decision to marry her husband rather than a more fiery suitor – who has returned to London after 5 years in India. The other relates to Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran, struggling with the after-effects of the war, hearing voices and feeling that life has little meaning. The introduction to my edition of the book indicates Woolf’s intention to use the novel “to criticise the social system and to show it at work, at its most intense”. In a somewhat limited way, I think she succeeds - it’s a beautifully-observed account – although within a very limited sphere (working class lives hardly feature at all). I enjoyed the book – except that it was written in one single block and contained no chapters (which I found a little irritating at times). This probably says far more about my own reading preferences!
The Irresistible Inheritance Of Wilberforce (Paul Torday): I read Torday’s first novel “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” in 2007 and had thoroughly enjoyed it. This is very different (the first one was a comedy, but this is more of a tragedy). The book’s central character, Wilberforce, is a wine nerd. In his 30s, he sells up his successful computer software company in order to concentrate on his main passion in life (wine). He “inherits” a huge cellar of wine – consisting of 100,000 bottles(!) - from a friend (actually, he buys it from his dying friend). The story is told “back-to-front” – starting in 2006 and ending in 2002 – and begins with Wilberforce as a befuddled drunk who’s lost grip with reality. At the start of the book, he’s consuming five or six bottles of classic wine every day (my two daily glasses seem quite modest in comparison!) and, by the end, Wilberforce is a hopeful young man, embarking on a new and thrilling phase of his life. It’s a somewhat gloomy book about a lonely alcoholic man’s search for identity… but very readable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

around the world in 80 days

Moira+I went along to the Tobacco factory Theatre last night to see Alex Byrne’s production of Around The World In 80 Days. To be honest, whilst I’m always up for going to the theatre, this wasn’t a production that particularly appealed.
But I was wrong.
It proved to be a really enjoyable evening. The six multi-talented actors-cum-musicians were all excellent and the cleverly devised set of limited parts was ingeniously adapted to suit the fast-moving storyline.
Silly, funny and thoroughly entertaining (for all age groups), last night’s show was rightly acclaimed by its very enthusiastic, very nearly full-house audience.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

mr holmes

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Bill Condon’s new film “Mr Holmes” - with Ian McKellen playing the lead role. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much – perhaps a “warm” film (I think I’d seen it described as such in a couple of newspaper reviews?) and with McKellen providing a decent performance as an ageing Sherlock Holmes.
Actually, I was very pleasantly surprised.
Yes, it WAS a “warm” film and, yes, McKellen was impressive (I thought he was wonderful!)… but it was much more than that. It’s based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” and flits between 1947 (with Holmes aged 93) and a case from many years before (which still torments Holmes and was instrumental in him giving up detective work and retiring to Dorset).
This is yet another film (and I’ve seen quite a few in recently and read a fair number of books too) about growing old and confronting one’s own mortality. With Holmes struggling with powers of recollection, this a gentle film about ageing and vulnerability… but also, crucially, empathy.
A rather lovely film and a simply brilliant performance by Ian McKellen.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

june 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Borgias (Mary Hollingsworth): The front cover of Hollingsworth’s book describes the Borgias as “history’s most notorious dynasty” and it would be difficult to dispute this claim. The book outlines the family’s “progress” from the early years of the 13th century to the mid-14th. Even before the election of the first Borgia pope in 1455 (77 year-old Alonso Borgia, choosing the papal name of Calixtus III), advancement and power was only secured through blatant corruption… and a second Borgia pope (Rodrigo, taking the name Alexander VI) followed in 1493. Once in power, other Borgia family members were promoted to ridiculous positions of power and influence… and massive wealth. Certainly, at that time, the idea of celebate popes was something of a joke – Alexander, for example, had a long affair with Vannozza dei Cattanei while still a priest, but before he became pope; and by her had his illegitimate children Cesare Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, Gioffre Borgia, and Lucrezia. A later mistress, Giulia Farnese, was the sister of Alessandro Farnese, and she gave birth to a daughter while Alexander was in his 60s and reigning as pope. Alexander fathered at least seven, and possibly as many as ten illegitimate children, and did much to promote his family's interests (like a 9 year-old being appointed an Archbishop!) - using his offspring to build alliances with a number of important dynasties. He appointed Giovanni Borgia as Captain General of the Church, and made Cesare a Cardinal of the Church - also creating independent duchies for each of them out of papal lands. Two descendants of pope Alexander VI also became queens of England, Scotland and Ireland (Catherine of Braganza married Charles II and Mary of Moderna married James II)! The Borgias even make FIFA look pretty tame by comparison!
Vintage Stuff (Tom Sharpe): Re-read another Tom Sharpe book (well, they make easy summer reading and are entertaining!). I apparently read this one shortly after it was published in 1982… but I couldn’t remember ANYTHING about it! It’s about a very minor public school with assault courses for over-active underachievers, cold showers and beatings – you get the general idea. Predictably farcical.
Vietnam! Vietnam! In Photographs and Text (Felix Greene): I was very much opposed to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. My copy of this book (published in 1966 – one year after large scale US troops were deployed) is an ex-library copy that I bought for 20p at a jumble sale some time ago… and which I’d only really “flicked through” until now. Greene was born+educated in the UK (he used to work for the BBC), but lived most of his life in the USA. The book combines more than 100 awful, stunning pictures by world-renown photographers together with Greene’s cogent comments. I think it’s one of the most shocking, saddening books I’ve ever read – and a powerful indictment of American aggressive intervention in Vietnam. It’s frightening to be reminded of how the US used its giant resources to argue the case for the “defence of freedom”. This is not the place for a history lesson(!), but I AM going to include just a few quotes from the book: “The facts are plain. This war was begun by armed American aggression aimed at perpetuating the unnatural and unintended division of Vietnam into North and South, in full violation of the Geneva Accords of 1954”… “It would probably come as a painful surprise to many Americans to realise how universally the war in Vietnam is viewed not as a ‘complex issue’ but as a simple and blatant act of aggression by the United States”… “morally, politically and militarily unjustifiable”… “We have used our power with great restraint” (President Johnson, May 1966)… “US Air Force flew no fewer than 26,858 sorties against Vietnam in a single week” (Newsweek, October 1965)… Believe me, I could go on and on! It’s a truly remarkable book and, even now, nearly 50 years on, one that you should read if you have an opportunity.
A Month In The Country (JL Carr): This is a rather lovely short novel (first published in 1980 and, apparently, also made into a film in 1987) about two men who meet in the quiet English countryside of a hot summer in 1920. They’re both survivors of the Great War. One (Tom Birkin) is temporarily living in a church uncovering and restoring a historical wall-painting and the other is camping in the next field in search of a lost grave. Birkin is the narrator – looking back in old age of his memories of his idyllic summer spent in Yorkshire (at the very end of the book, he dates his account as 1978), when he felt he’d glimpsed happiness and contentment. However, this is countered by his lack of money, his horrific wartime experiences, the painful break-up of his marriage and things that might have been.
It’s a gentle, tender and elegant book which I read during the course of a beautiful summer’s day.
Britain In The Sixties: The Other England (Geoffrey Moorhouse): The “Other England” is what Moorhouse calls everywhere else other than the “Golden Circle” around London. I was somewhat taken aback by the condition of my rather battered copy of this book… until I realised (rather like “Vietnam! Vietnam! above) that this might be due to the fact that it’s over 50 years’ old (first published in 1964)! How can that be?! Yes, this is definitely a book for ME – because it outlines the time of my youth (I started at university in 1967). Fascinating to be reminded that, at that time, Britain had not yet joined the Common Market (the EU if you’re too young!) and was about to swallow the implications for the nation’s railway network as a result of the Beeching cuts. It’s sobering to realise how communications have changed so dramatically over the past 50 years – at one point, Moorhouse talks glowingly about the huge telecommunication advances everyone had experienced thanks to the introduction of telex and STD! It was written less 20 years since the end of WW2 and the need for slum-clearance throughout the country is referred to constantly (and also the levels of appalling pollution). Moorhouse was also clearly very enthusiastic about what was going on in Birmingham (where I was born and stayed until 1967) in the 1960s – describing it as the “most go-ahead city in Europe”. Yes, much was happening but, in my view, the highway engineers were given far too much of a free hand and, sadly, the quality of much of the architecture (and the materials used) was desperately disappointing. Reading the book today also makes you realise just how many of the country’s key industries of that time have disappeared or changed beyond recognition – mining, textiles, heavy machinery, manufacturing, shipbuilding and steelworks, to name just a few. I was also struck by the following incidental comments: a) talking about age 50-something redundant millworkers in Lancashire having “a life expectation of anything up to 20 years” ahead of them (these days, we might anticipate a few more years!) and b) one person in eight was a car owner in 1964 (it’s now probably more like 1 in 2?).
An absolutely fascinating book - well, to read now at least!

Friday, June 19, 2015

another bristol pilgrimage…

It might have something to do with the fact that our great friends, Gail+Ian Adams, are on Iona this week (and, in all probability, have participated in the weekly pilgrimage walk around the island) that I decided to repeat my own Bristol version (ie. using Jane Bentley+Neil Paynter’s excellent book “Around a Thin Place – an Iona pilgrimage guide” as a resource for my “journey”) – which I’d previously undertaken in September 2012 and in March 2014. This time, I broke my cycling route (yes, bike this year!) into nine sections or stops… pausing for reflections taken from the book, together with my own contemplations.
The weather was absolutely beautiful yesterday (I’d cunningly planned the day around our local forecast!) and it again proved to be a fruitful (and sometimes challenging) time.
As before, I related my stopping points with pilgrimage stops on Iona (and, apart from my starting point, I didn’t choose them in advance):
St Martin’s Cross/setting out on the road was the Ferry Steps, near Temple Meads station; The Nunnery was Castle Park/St Peter’s Church (destroyed in the Blitz); Crossroads was a bench next to St Augustine’s Parade/Baldwin Street/Colston Avenue/Broad Quay; High Point was the top floor of the Galleries’ car park; Marble Quarry was the M-Shed; Columba’s Bay was the Avon Lock Gates adjacent Bennett Way; the Machair was the excellent Brigstow Lounge, Millennium Parade; the Hermit’s Cell was God’s Garden, adjacent Bathurst Basin; and St Oran’s Chapel was a bench on Queen Square (my original choice had been the Quaker Burial Ground/’Redcliff Pit’ on Redcliffe Way – but I’d been somewhat put off by the presence of six rather ‘dodgy-looking’ gentlemen and their bull-terriers! What a cop-out! Sorry).

It proved to be another challenging and thought-provoking time… and I know it’s something I’ll continue to repeat (choosing completely different parts of Bristol… or maybe even elsewhere?) over the coming years.
Photos (from left to right, top to bottom): Ferry Steps; Castle Park; Baldwin Street; Galleries’ Car Park; M-Shed; Avon Lock Gates; Brigstow Lounge; God’s Garden; and Queen Square.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

may-june 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher (Ahn Do-hyun): I suppose this is a modern fable - a story of a distinctive silver salmon living its predictable life, swimming upstream to the place of its birth to spawn and then to die… but also about finding freedom and a harmony with nature in pursuit of a dream. In many ways, it echoes one of my favourite books - Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” - but I’m afraid, for me, it didn’t come remotely close to matching it. Frankly, a bit of a disappointment.
Not My Father’s Son (Alan Cumming): I do like autobiographies/biographies! However, I’m definitely NOT someone who normally reads a book about a “celebrity”! Actually, I picked up this book in Foyles and remembered seeing a “Who Do You Think You Are?” programme about Cumming’s family background. Rather typically (for me!), I don’t know a great deal about Cumming as an actor but, as I flicked through a copy of the book in the shop, I became intrigued. The television programme dealt mainly with his maternal grandfather but, while the book does address this, it also deals with Cumming’s own childhood at the hands of a violent, cruel father. A brave, honest, well-written book.
The Children Act (Ian McEwan): I know McEwan has his critics, but I like his books. This one is about a highly-respected High Court judge who is called on to try an urgent case - for religious reasons, a 17 year-old boy is refusing medical treatment that could save his life. It’s a beautifully-constructed, well-paced, intricate and sensitive story which encompasses relationships, legal argument and music (amongst other things!). Although there were one or two aspects that I found a little far-fetched(?), I thought it was a rather beautiful book – with an ending that didn’t let it down. Highly recommended.
The Enneagram (Richard Rohr+Andreas Ebert): This book provides a model of human personality modelling based on nine interconnected personality types (from a Christian perspective – and showing how it was developed in Egypt by the Desert fathers and subsequently rediscovered by a Franciscan missionary at the turn of the 14th century). I’ve never really been fascinated by personality type identification and so, perhaps not surprisingly, although I found the book interesting and enlightening, I didn’t find it utterly compelling. Perhaps one reason for this is due to the fact that I get rather bogged down (ie. confused!) by the detail. Although Moira+I both agreed on her particular personality type identification, I finished the book thinking (and this will make no sense whatsoever if you’re not familiar with Enneagram!): “I’m probably a FOUR… but perhaps there are also bits of me that are a ONE or maybe even a NINE (actually, on reflection, definitely not a 9!)”. When I asked Moira what she thought (ie. my personality type), she reckoned I might be a ONE… I’ve since re-read the section and, blow me down, I think she just might be right! This is just the first sentence of the first paragraph (entitled “The Need to Be Perfect”!): “ONEs are idealists, motivated and driven on by longing for a true, just, and moral world. They are honest and fair and can spur others to work and mature and grow…”! Rest assured, there are also LOTS of irritating traits (shock horror!) – such as: “struggle against imperfection”… “stick to a precise schedule”… “all ONEs live close to the edge of self-righteousness”!! Who moi?
The Waves (Virginia Woolf): I’d not previously read any books by Woolf. This is a rather lovely, stream of consciousness, poetic novel (first published in 1931). It begins with six children playing in a garden by the sea and follows their lives as they grow up and experience friendship, love and grief. It’s about idealism, ambition, relationships, competition and comparisons… it’s also about wonder, beauty and, sometimes, the apparent pointlessness of life as one grows old. I particularly liked how Woolf inserted descriptions of the sun’s pathway - from dawn to dusk – to represent and introduce the particular periods of the characters’ lives.  At times, I found it difficult to fully understand the train of thought, but very beautiful nonetheless. I probably now need to read “To The Lighthouse”!