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.


Friday, January 16, 2015

swallows and amazons at the old vic

Moira+I went along to Bristol’s Old Vic theatre on Wednesday to see our second “Christmas show” of the season. Arthur Ransome’s 1929 novel had been adapted for the theatre by Helen Edmundson, with songs by Neil Hannon and this production (directed by Tom Morris) provided another wonderful evening’s entertainment. I THINK I can remember reading “Swallows and Amazons” in my youth (or was it just the television series I watched?)... and there’s definitely something rather nostalgic about the sense of fantastic childhood adventure (especially when mixed with memories  of my time as a boy scout!).
The principle members of the cast are all excellent, but I also loved that the minor characters - or “players in blue” (as the programme describes them) – were also musicians, prop-holders, water-throwers, wave-makers and much more besides. This was very much low-tech theatre at its very best. I continue to be massively impressed by the abilities and skills of theatrical designers (set, costume, sound and lighting... SO much invention and, best of all, so much left to the imagination of the audience. It was all very good fun.
Bristol has been exceptionally fortunate to have had two truly excellent Christmas shows this year (perhaps, not surprisingly, “101 Dalmatians” is still my favourite!).
I was waiting in the lobby before the show started and a mother(?) passed me, talking to her 8-9 year-old son(?)... she was trying to explain to him what “theatre” was all about. I have to say, her son looked pretty nonplussed and gave every impression of having been dragged along against his will. Well, this production was definitely another case of the “magic of theatre” and I’d be prepared to bet that the boy emerged into the night air after the show as an enthusiastic, passionate convert!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


For our final cinema-going experience of 2014, Moira+I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Matthew Warchus’s “Pride” (various friends, including Gareth, Alan and Becki, had strongly recommended it - so it seems wrong not to!). Based on true events, it's set in the summer of 1984. Margaret Thatcher is in power and the National Union of Mineworkers is on strike. At a Gay Pride march in London a group of gay and lesbian activists decide to raise money to support the families of striking miners but, sadly, the Union is embarrassed to receive their support. Undeterred, the LGSM (Lesbians+Gays Support the Miners) decide to drive in a minibus to a mining village in deepest Wales to offer their donation in person… and so begins an extraordinary, surprising, poignant, uplifting story. It’s a beautiful, extraordinary film about pride, about community, about people… and, ultimately, about spirit (even against all the odds).
Thirty years on and it’s also a timely reminder of: a) the way in which the Thatcher government acted to destroy the miners (it still makes SO angry), b) the actions of the police during the year-long strike (something, I think, from which they’ve still not fully recovered), c) how the power and effectiveness of the unions has largely been eradicated (through legislation, but also partly as a result perhaps of Thatcher’s “it’s-all-about-the-indivual-and-damn-the-rest-you” legacy) and d) just how far society has changed when it comes to its attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (and LONG overdue!).
It’s a very powerful, glorious, saddening and yet hugely uplifting film… and a very good way to stride into a General Election year!

new year reflections 2014-5

For the past three years, I’ve posted something along these lines as we approach a new year (to remind ME… perhaps in years to come). It’s been a very happy and rewarding year in so many ways, so here’s a rough summary:
My top five, in order (almost impossible to limit it to just five – my SHORTlist was 15 books long!!): This Boy (Alan Johnson); Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (Billy Collins); The House of the Mosque (Kader Abdolah) and The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer) and With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer (Susannah Clamp).
My top six* (again, in vague order – although we didn’t get to the cinema all that often): The Imitation Game; Dallas Buyers Club; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Pride; Porco Rosso and Will+Testament (*sorry, I've added "Pride" after seeing it on the final day of 2014!).

LOVELY LIVE PERFORMANCES (broken down into various categories):
My top five: 101 Dalmations (Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol); If Play Is Play (Royal Opera House, London); Jane Eyre (Bristol Old Vic); My Perfect Mind (Brewery Theatre, Bristol) and The Tiger and the Moustache (Brewery Theatre).

My top five: Three Cane Whale (twice!)(St George’s, Bristol); Martha Tilston (Colston Hall, Bristol); Eddi Reader (St George’s, Bristol); Seth Lakeman (Towersey) and Merry Hell (Towersey).
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Rembrandt at The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Open Exhibition 2014 (RWA, Bristol); Pre-Raphaelites (Tate Britain)… oh, and of course, my one-man show at The Grain Barge! Sorry, must do better!

Another rather lazy year as far as live sport goes… I went to Taunton to watch Somerset CC play (probably three times), Bath Races in June (with some of my old Norton Hill School buddies) and, as usual, I’ve enjoyed watching the Six Nations and the Autumn Rugby Internationals on TV (albeit the latter on catch-up, not live!)… but it’s not really the same. Once again, I MUST do better!
Once again, we’ve been blessed to be able to meet up with many of our lovely “special” friends (they know who they are!) on a pretty frequent basis during the course of the year. Also a wonderful visit to The Netherlands (Amsterdam, Houten and Utrecht) and staying with our lovely, generous friends Dick+Dientje in Houten… and meeting up with Harry+Willeke in Utrecht. We also had a lovely time in East Sussex - visiting lovely old friends Felicity+Chris and then going on to re-discover the charms of Winchelsea and Rye. I’ve probably missed some other important people!

Another very eventful and enjoyable year, including:

1. I’ve very much enjoyed continuing to post a drawing or photograph every day as part of my “One Day Like This” blog (with well over 400 drawings and 400 photographs since I started in September 2012).
2. I finished the final large elevation drawing (last of three) for Alan+Lesley - my father’s old Art Junior School in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
3. I set myself the challenge of taking dawn photographs (from our bathroom window!): ten consecutive daily photographs (“Ten Days of Dawns”) each month throughout the year – and culminating in a final image (“120 Days of Dawns”) for the entire year.
4. I’ve completed a series of drawings to illustrate a book by my good friend, Venetia Horton, on the history of Christianity in GB and Ireland.
5. One Man Exhibition (sounds far more impressive than it really was!) at The Grain Barge in October… and I actually sold a number of my drawings!
6. I took a whole series of photographs for an Advent book (in conjunction with poets Ian Adams and Chris Goan – and, crucially, with the help of the brilliant Si Smith) for Proost. It’s called “We Who Still Wait” (it’ll still be available for Advent 2015!!).
Cafes, reading, drawing, photography, walking, cycling, living near the sea (well, sort of…) and, of course, looking after grandchildren remain very important aspects of my life!

The massive bonus this year was that, following my hip replacement in May, I feel as if I’ve been given a new lease of life! The operation was a brilliant success and it REALLY has made a huge difference to my lifestyle.
There’s another Drawn Exhibition at the RWA in 2015 and, after being fortunate enough to get one of my drawings selected in 2013, I’d certainly like to be able to submit something. Who knows? I’d also quite like to produce a colouring book, or maybe two; one for children and one for adults (no, not THAT kind of colouring book!)… but, again, who knows? Oh, and a calendar.
I’m still desperately keen to go back to Ireland… but Moira’s set her heart on a holiday in the Yorkshire Moors. I also long to walk along Porthmoor Beach at St Ives again! Through the AMAZING generosity of two very special friends, I’m also “booked in” for a five day golf tour to Northern France in June (I’ve played just one game of golf in the last two years)!
I no longer belong to a church (or attend Quakers meetings) and, although I continue to read church-related stuff from time to time, I’m really in a spiritual wilderness at present. So, another year of plodding? Who knows…

1. I became a Trustee at the wonderful Windmill Hill City Farm last Spring. It’s an amazing place with some brilliant people working/volunteering there.

2. I continue to take huge pleasure in seeing others grow and develop: loving seeing our daughters creating beautiful work (Ruth’s prints, jewellery and Shaun the Sheeps; Hannah’s posters, workshops and other projects; Alice’s book and her current novel-writing); and watching all our grandchildren growing up and learning new things.
3. I’ve enjoyed getting on my bike again (after my hip operation).

4. I’ve really enjoyed “discovering” (yes, very late in the day, I know!) the various Studio Ghibli films.
5. My beautiful, lovely daughters gave me a simply amazing present for my 65th birthday in February (well, actually, 65 presents to be opened over the course of 65 days)!
My grandfather, Frank Walker (he died 30 years ago, in 1984), was a member of the 8th Brigade Royal Field Artillery during the Great War. I had hoped to get to France/Belgium at some stage to visit one or two of the key battle sites at some stage, but I think it’s probably not going to happen.

It’s been another wonderful year… and we continue to count our blessings.
Photo: one of my 120 Days of Dawns (photographed from our bathroom window!)

Monday, December 29, 2014

the fearful void?

“The Fearful Void” is the title of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s memorable book about his solo attempt to cross the Sahara, without previous experience of deserts, or of camels, or how to navigate or local languages on a voyage of self-discovery. I recall that one critic described it as “sublime madness”!  
Strangely, this title came to mind as I’ve been pondering the turn of the year, with a UK General Election just over four months away! I’ve previously expressed my disillusionment with mainstream politics (here, for example, last September) and I’m now a proud member of the Green Party – the first time in my life that I’ve joined a political party.
Although I’ve been heartened by the number of other people who appear to have taken similar actions, I look ahead to the General Election FEARFUL of its potential outcome.
1.  There are 650 parliamentary seats but, in reality, the results in perhaps 25-40 marginal seats will determine the overall election result. In other words, if you don’t live in one of these marginal seats, your vote won’t matter (don’t get me wrong – EVERYONE needs to vote!).
2.  In Scotland, the SNPs are surging ahead in the polls - by being to the LEFT of the Labour Party. In England (I’m not sure about Wales+Northern Ireland), UKIP has made huge inroads by being the most RIGHT-wing party. Perhaps I need to move to Scotland! 
3.  According to the latest opinion polls, it seems likely that we could get another coalition government with the smaller parties having an increasing “say” in policies. Labour, Green, Lib-Dems(?) and even SNP forming the next government perhaps? My own fear would be a coalition of Tories+UKIP (moving to Scotland would become a REAL possibility!).
There clearly needs to be some sort of revolution in UK politics. Unfortunately, nothing will happen that will adversely affect the influence of the main political parties (they’re not stupid!). Like me, I suspect that the vast majority of the UK electorate are sick of Westminster politics – its greed, its over-centralisation and its London-centricity.
A real infection of despair, even hatred of Westminster politics… or is it just me?
PS: Depressingly, the older I get, the more I get to feel that democracy is overrated! That’s not QUITE the case, but I feel sure I’m in a minority when it comes to matters such as the EU, for example (I could have chosen "increasing taxes to pay for public services and the NHS", "immigration", "environment", "education" etc!) - I’ve no doubt (assuming people could be bothered to turn out to vote) that the UK electorate would opt to withdraw from the EU… which I think would be just an awful decision.
PPS: Largely as a result of the bombing of Iraq in 2003, I've come to despise Tony Blair. However, somewhat ironically, I couldn't resist the temptation to buy a brand new hardback version of his 700-page autobiography ("A Journey") for a knock-down £2.50 - published price £25 (don't get me wrong, I still despise him... it's all part of my political education!). 

december 2014 books

More book stuff (sorry!): I know it’s a bit silly (and it’s just for my benefit), but I’ve been keeping tabs on the books I’ve read each year. Over the past few years, especially in retirement(!), I’m conscious that my reading “intake” has increased hugely… from perhaps half a dozen books a year to more than one a week. I’ve just totted up my books for 2014 (that’s what blog posts are for, right?) and I rather think that this year has been just a little excessive when it comes to reading – a total of 70 (seventy!)! Think I need to get a life!
Miss Mapp (EF Benson): My third Benson “Mapp+Lucia” book (I’m hooked!). Written in the 1920s and set in Rye – on which the fictional Tilling was based. Elizabeth Mapp is the town’s outrageous snob – forever scheming to be seen in the best possible light herself whilst, at the same time, sneering at her potential rivals. As noted in one of my previous posts, it’s “beautifully observed, it’s an outrageously pretentious and excruciatingly farcical account of one-upmanship and class in a society where all the main players don’t need to work for a living. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, amusing and very readable”. Precisely.
Shrapnell (William Wharton): This book, published in 2012, is about Wharton’s WW2 experiences. Born in Philadelphia in 1925, Wharton had previously written the classic wartime novels “Birdy” and “A Midnight Clear”. However, he was apparently a very private man and rarely gave interviews - so this book represents his own account of wartime events that influenced his best works. It’s a brave, illuminatingly-frank and, at times, pretty terrifying memoir.
A Shot In The Dark (Saki, aka HH Munro): This is another of Saki’s books of short stories. It been ages since I last read any of his stuff and I’d forgotten just what a clever writer he was (he was killed in WW1, aged 46). A brilliant observer of life and people. It’s a very impressive skill to be tell a compelling tale in a matter of a few pages. Frequently surprising and often funny.
Lucia In London (EF Benson): With a Mapp+Lucia mini-television series being screened leading up to the new year, I couldn’t resist reading yet another of the books (my fourth!). The action here takes places between London (as the book title suggests!) and Riseholme (this fictional Elizabethan village in the Cotswolds is thought to be based on Broadway in Worcestershire!). Benson’s vibrant satire is just wonderful. This book, like the others in the collection, make perfect “holiday” reading (ie. light, amusing and very readable).
We Who Still Wait (Chris Goan, Ian Adams, Steve Broadway+Si Smith): This seems very strange to include one of your own books in a book post! This was an Advent resource book (published by Proost). Si Smith came up with the initial concept; Chris Goan wrote the beautiful poems and Ian Adams produced the thought-provoking daily reflections (I just provided the photographs!). This might sound a little strange in the circumstances but, although I’d read all the poems and reflections during the course of the book’s compilation, I didn’t really use the book fully this Advent. So, I’m looking forward to re-reading it next Advent!  

Monday, December 15, 2014

gasworks choir christmas concert

Moira+I went along to St George’s again last night to see the exhilarating, talented, acappella Gasworks Choir perform at their annual Christmas Concert. As ever, it was a hugely entertaining, colourful(!), infectious and uplifting experience.
They’re quite, quite brilliant!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

120 days of dawns…

In a rather haphazard way, back in January, I decided to start taking photographs from our bathroom window of the sky just before sunrise. I’m always up pretty early and I’d noticed some beautiful skies at this time of day – yes, sunrises are often stunning, but I’m talking about the 20 minutes or so leading up to sunrise (and, anyway, sunrises seemed too straightforward!). This developed into an idea for a whole-year project – perhaps a dawn photograph of the same view taken EVERY day for the whole of 2014? But this was clearly impractical – what about holidays? Weekends away etc? So I eventually opted for taking photographs on 10 consecutive days every month.
After three months you get to appreciate that morning sun changes position(!), so I realised that I probably needed to have two distinct views to take account of this (which, after 12 months, now seems entirely justified). As you might imagine, some mornings produce nothing more than grey murk but, on other occasions, the skies can really be quite magical. 
In the end, I developed a sort of routine - probably taking three photographs most mornings, after setting the alarm on my mobile phone to ring on “snooze mode” at five minute intervals say 20, 15 and 10 minutes before sunrise.
I absolutely LOVE skies (and not just the early morning and sunset ones) and it’s been fascinating to watch how they change – literally from one minute to the next. The year-long process has also underlined how much beauty we all FAIL to see or appreciate… it’s all too easy to wake and register that the sun is shining or that it’s another grey day or whatever. Over the course of the past 12 months, there have been SO many fleeting, beautiful treasured early morning moments that so few people have witnessed (obviously, mainly due to them being asleep!)… and it’s at that time, as sunrise approaches, the sky is probably at its most beguiling and surprising.
It’s been a very enjoyable project… and one that I’ll rather miss. Another of life’s simple pleasures.
Photo: 120 days of dawns – January-December 2014.