Friday, June 22, 2018

arcadia...

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Paul Wright’s “Arcadia” – a study of Britain’s shifting (and contradictory) relationship with the land through 100 years of footage from the British Film Institute’s National Archive. Although I didn’t have huge expectations for the film, it proved to be a mesmerising array of material.
Watching the film, one is VERY aware that this could ONLY be Britain – Morris dancing, fox hunting, horses and hounds, privilege and class, rich and poor, eccentricity, naturism (there were a LOT of people dancing around in the nude!), folk festivals, racism and even paganism… you get the general idea.
The film began with a series of black and white chocolate box images (plough fields, scenic villages, children dancing around the Maypole and the like)(Brexiteers would hail it as their model for the Britain of the future!), but soon moved on to encompass so many different aspects of rural Britain – the beauty, brutality, conflict, magic and madness – and, in particular, how we as a nation seemed to have largely lost our connection with nature and turned our backs on the environment.
It’s really very much a montage of archive clips - accompanied by some rather wonderful music from Anne Briggs, Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp). But, actually, it’s much more than that – I found it quite compelling (and somewhat sobering).
I need to see it again!

Friday, June 15, 2018

may-june 2018 books...

Visiting The Minotaur (Claire Williamson): Claire is a friend of our daughter Ruth and this book of poetry is the second book of hers that I’ve read (the previous one was ‘Soulwater Pool’). I really like her writing style and found myself reading every single poem out loud (to myself!). These poems explore emotionally raw subjects such as the suicide of a mother and brother; the nature of grief; issues from her own childhood… but also about raising her own children, about culture and about friendships. I’d have loved to have had some of the background to a few of the poems but, nevertheless, her words are powerful and engaging enough to speak for themselves… with the bull as a recurring motif. A beautiful, lyrical book.
Bring Up The Bodies (Hilary Mantel): To be truthful, I’m not normally a great lover of historical fiction, but I was rather blown away by this book. As you are probably already aware, it tells the story of Henry VIII’s “darkly glittering court” (to quote the book’s cover) from the perceived viewpoint of chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, at the time when rumours abounded of Anne Boleyn’s faithlessness and when the king had become captivated by Jane Seymour. Mantel’s ability to combine her eye for detail with well-researched historical context is remarkable… but she also has the incredible talent of being a brilliant story-teller and to make the reader feel we are part of each the lives of the book’s characters. Mantel is an extraordinary writer. I’ll now definitely have to read Wolf Hall (belatedly)!
La’s Orchestra Saves The World (Alexander McCall Smith): I do like McCall Smith as an author… he seems to be able to write in an almost effortless way. This novel, set on the eve of WW2, tells of a lonely, young widow who decides to bring villagers and men from the local Suffolk airbase together by forming an amateur orchestra (there’s also a love link to a Polish refugee). It’s a very easy read (I finished it in a day), but I found it all just a little too sugar-coated and altogether rather too quintessentially English for my liking (perseverance, patriotism, pots of tea and the power of music will show the way!).
Look To The Lady (Margery Allingham): First published in 1931 (our edition in 1960). More light summer reading (only my second ‘classic crime’ novel by Margery Allingham… and my second featuring ‘detective’ Albert Campion). I have to say I wasn’t very impressed. The first half of the book was intriguing (a well-to-do Suffolk family had guarded an irreplaceable chalice for hundreds of years on behalf of the crown; a band of devious criminals were attempting to steal it; Campion rescues the son of the well-to-do family from the streets of London…), but then, for me, it just descended into a rather silly and ridiculous farce (involving a crazy witch amongst other things). Despite some occasional clever and genuinely amusing passages, I thought the story petered out extremely disappointingly.
The Blackhouse (Peter May): I’d previously read (and very much enjoyed) two Peter May books and had subsequently received encouragement from various friends that I should definitely read his Lewis Trilogy of novels… this is book one. Lewis-born detective inspector is sent from Edinburgh to investigate a murder… old skeletons begin to surface. There’s something about crime mysteries and Scottish islands that appeals to me (eg. ‘Shetland’ tv series based on Anne Cleeves’ books)… baffling misdeeds in hauntingly beautiful, isolated places? Whatever it is, this book certainly delivered… something of a crime ‘thriller’, fascinating characters and a clever, intriguing storyline (with 100 pages to go, I couldn’t imagine how all – well, most – of the loose ends could be tied up). Can’t wait to read the second book.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

a monster calls at bristol old vic…

Last night, Moira and I went to the Bristol Old Vic to see director Sally Cookson’s production of Patrick Ness’s young adult novel “A Monster Calls”.
It was superb.
Actually, before we’d even seen to performance, we just KNEW it was going to be superb… five-star reviews, passionate acclaim by twitterers, stories of audience members hugging each other at the end, tears… and, of course, the very fact that Sally Cookson was the ‘conductor’ behind it all.
The story centres on a 13-year-old boy, Conor O’Malley, and his mother who has terminal cancer. He’s being bullied at school, his father lives in America with his new family, he doesn’t get on with his grandmother, and his mother refuses to come clean about her illness. Life is stark and very tough… and he’s angry. Oh, and of course, there’s a monster – in the form of an old Yew tree – which, ultimately, helps the teenager come to terms with his situation through stories.
As ever with Cookson’s productions, the cast is quite brilliant (I thought Matthew Tennyson, as Conor, was outstanding) – as was the set design and lighting and (of course) the music (Benji and Will Bower!).
It’s profoundly sad and moving, utterly captivating, visually stunning and hugely inventive.
Brilliant, imaginative storytelling and exceptional live performance.
An astonishing piece of theatre.
Photo: from the Old Vic website
PS: The production finishes in Bristol on 16 June and opens at the Old Vic, London on 7 July for six weeks.
PPS: Son-in-law Felix Hayes is also in the cast playing the Dad (and, of course, he’s excellent!).

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

the breadwinner…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Nora Twomey’s animated film “The Breadwinner”. It’s based on Deborah Ellis’s novel about an 11 year-old girl in Afghanistan at a time when the country was ruled by the Taliban. The girl’s father is wrongfully imprisoned and she realises she needs to disguise herself as a boy in order to become the family’s sole breadwinner.
It’s a film about creativity and courage in the face of adversity, the strength of the family… and the power of storytelling.
I thought it was a stunning and powerful film (Moira wasn’t quite as taken by it, but we’re allowed to slightly disagree on this matters!) and absolutely beautifully animated (by the team behind ‘The Secret of Kells’ and ‘Song of the Sea’ films)(Moira agrees!). It’s also a pretty frightening and depressing film about how people are treated (along the familiar lines of “what have we become?”) and yet, despite this backdrop, it retains a sense of humour and is tremendously uplifting and hopeful too.
Apparently, when researching her novel in the late 1990s, Ellis spent time interviewing girls and women in refugee camps in Pakistan and one gets a very real sense that the film has retained its cultural authenticity. Just(!) because it’s ‘animation’, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a film for children (it’s classified “12A”). Animation needs to be seen simply as a medium in this respect… the book was written for young adults AND adults and the film keeps to this.  
It’s a wonderful, inspiring film… and I think you need to see it.

mirga (and the CBSO) at colston hall…

I went to Colston Hall last night to hear/see the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (you’ll know them better as the CBSO) performing Lili Boulanger’s “D’un Matin de Printemps”, Debussy’s “La Mer” and Mahler’s “Symphony no.1”. Actually, although I’m on Colston Hall’s emailing list and frequently check out their website, I’d completely missed that the CBSO were coming to Bristol… so it was ENTIRELY down to Moira (who spotted it on Twitter) that I ended up buying a ticket.
Let’s face it, the REAL reason for wanting to attend the concert wasn’t so much that it was the CBSO (brilliant though they are) or for the music to be played (although I’m a big Mahler fan and also love Debussy’s “La Mer”)…
It was because Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla was the conductor.
If you’ve never seen her ‘perform’, then you MUST make sure you do so at the earliest possible opportunity. She is simply wonderful.
The only previous time I’d seen her ‘in action’ was in January last year, at the Birmingham Symphony Hall (not long after she’d been appointed Director of the acclaimed CBSO at the ridiculously young age of 29). As you might be able to tell from my blog post of the time (it’s worth reading just for my ‘slightly’ over-the-top review!), I was utterly captivated by her.
Well, yesterday evening (AND six months’ pregnant!)(Mirga, not me), she and the CBSO gave the large and enthusiastic audience a night to remember.
Mirga, undoubtedly, is a true super-star.

I watched/heard the performance from the fourth row of the stalls (and the extreme right, facing the stage). Although this meant that much of the orchestra wasn’t directly visible, it DID provide me with the perfect position from which to watch the conductor perform from her rostrum.
It was a completely intoxicating experience… as a performer, she was mesmerising… and passionate, and powerful, and tender. Utterly enchanting and quite, quite magical.  
She has clearly already forged a formidable relationship with both the orchestra and the audiences.
The orchestra loves her.

She loves the CBSO.
I absolutely love her.

And, after last night, Bristol loves her too.
Photo: Receiving the audience's acclaim at the end of yesterdays concert (yes, she’s definitely pregnant!)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

may 2018 books...

Where The Streams Come From (Chris Goan): Although we’ve never met, I regard poet Chris Goan as a good friend. We’ve collaborated together (alongside Ian Adams and Si Smith – I merely provided some photographs) on a book for Proost and our paths have also crossed in connection with the “World Turned Upside Down” exhibition in Leeds last year. He lives in Dunoon, Scotland, and is a member of the Aoradh community. I love his poetry and really enjoyed this collection – which focuses on nature, spirituality, love, compassion (and a whole range of other things, including CalMac ferries!). He certainly has a way with words and I very much liked the fact that most of his poems were accompanied by brief background notes putting his words into context. One of those special books that I’ll be dipping into again and again over the coming months/years.
Autobiography (Neville Cardus): I bought this 1947 first edition for 50p(!) at the Taunton Cricket Ground secondhand bookshop. Cardus (1888-1975) came from an impoverished family background and was largely self-taught (he reckoned he was ‘unteachable’ at school, but spent countless hours in the local library reading). Somewhat bizarrely, in 1919, he found himself as the cricket correspondent of the esteemed Manchester Guardian… and subsequently, in 1927, also its chief music critic (his main passion)(this book contains some wonderful descriptions of his conversations with Thomas Beecham). My own knowledge of Cardus is as a cricket writer… and I’ve loved his eloquent, flowery descriptions and his articulate, romantic fervour for his subject (and his humour). He wrote this autobiography when he was 52 (he wrote three others!) and, yes, his stuff is ‘of an age’ and, on occasions, he comes across as something of an egoist… but, nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
44 Scotland Street (Alexander McCall Smith): I like McCall Smith’s stuff (No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). This is a little different – about characters and life in Edinburgh – which he started writing as a daily serial for ‘The Scotsman’. The storylines are relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, and all the characters readily identified as ‘types’ we’ve all met. Yes, it might be light reading, but thoroughly entertaining, enjoyable (and pretty gentle) light reading!
English Cricket (Christopher Brookes): A fascinating book, published in 1978 (just after Kerry Packer launched his ‘cricketing circus’), tracing the game’s evolution over the past 500 years. In the 18th century, the game was essentially one played and organised by the aristocracy and their upper-class friends. By the late 19th century, it had developed into a game which made particular distinctions between ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’ (with amateurs and professionals having their separate dressing rooms and, sometimes, even entering the field of play by a separate gate!). Ridiculously, this distinction lasted until 1962 - and I can remember the last Gentlemen v Players (ie. amateurs versus professionals) match at Lord’s taking place that year. Brookes talks about how the game has had to become a business in order to attract finance and how, for the counties, the limited over formats probably represented the ‘way forward’ in order for the game to survive (he quotes a newspaper report from 1971, which noted that the average daily attendance at county championship matches in 1970 had been just 581!). The book is a reminder that cricket has faced many upheavals over its development (long before Packer, for example, in 1846, William Clarke’s All-England XI of ‘wandering professionals’ threatened the very future of the game) and this will no doubt continue to be the case – despite my own selfish moaning about the current demise of the County Championship!
Freeze Frame (Peter May): This is an “Enzo Macleod Investigation” (and, true to form, I later discovered that this was book four of a series of seven!). Scott Enzo Macleod is a forensics expert who has taken on a bet to solve seven ‘cold cases’. This investigation is set on a small island off the coast of Brittany and relates to the notorious, unsolved killing of a tropical disease specialist and entomologist in his study some 20 years earlier. A very clever book (sometimes just a little too clever and fanciful perhaps?) which I read in a day and a half. Dark and powerful. This was only my second Peter May book, but there will definitely be more!

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

april-may 2018 books…

Spark (Alice Broadway): I’ve previously blogged (separately) about this book – daughter Alice’s second book in the ‘Skin Trilogy’. In this world of power and control/ haves and have-nots/ morality and corruption/ manipulation and duplicity/ judgement and risk/ belief and unbelief/ integrity and hope, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking, wise and powerful book. It might be labelled as ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novel, but it has a message for young and old alike. I absolutely loved it. A brilliant ‘page-turner’ if ever there was one.
Travelling To Infinity (Jane Hawking): I bought this remarkable book on the day Stephen Hawking died (from the £3 Bookshop!). It tells the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking’s extraordinary life together. They were married for over 25 years and had three children. They met in January 1963, shortly after Stephen had begun research in cosmology in Cambridge. Within a matter of months Stephen was diagnosed with a strain of multiple sclerosis (later confirmed as motor neurone disease) and given a ‘couple of years to live’ but, despite this, they married in July 1965. The story tells of Stephen’s celebrated achievements in physics, astrophysics, cosmology (and beyond!); the huge list of awards, medals and titles that were bestowed on him from governments and famous institutions; his amazing capacity for sitting for hours working out incredibly complicated theorems in his head; his love of being the star attraction at conferences throughout the world. But behind this frenzied lifestyle came the unrelenting, pivotal, 24/7 support he required to sustain things. Jane was clearly the person who enabled Stephen to achieve so much of what he did (providing the 24/7 care in the early years of their marriage - and a good deal beyond that; juggling family life; making necessary travel and complicated accommodation arrangements; organising suppers and receptions for distinguished visiting scholars and the like; accompanying him on his numerous engagements and providing constant ‘nursing’ support; and later co-ordinating his ‘external’ nursing support and balancing his escalating needs). Stephen and Jane divorced in 1995 (his second marriage to his nurse ended in divorce in 2006 and Jane remarried in 1997), but, since 2006, they were “able to associate freely again and enjoy many a family occasion together”. The book makes compelling reading. It’s a brave, honest, painful account of their lives – with all the triumphs and excitement, together with all hardships and sacrifices. I still haven’t seen the film (“The Theory of Everything”), but I suspect that it begins to tell the story of Jane’s vital role in Stephen’s life – something about which, in this world that concentrates so much on celebrity and success, I suspect that most of us never knew. It’s a long and complicated story – Jane is an excellent writer and she tells the story in a tender, non-vindictive and respectful way. I urge you to read the book for yourself.
Morality For Beautiful Girls (Alexander McCall Smith): I needed some gentle light reading after the in-depth account of the Hawking family! Another gentle, joyful, humourous book of African wisdom.
The Making Of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr): Marr is a brilliant communicator (I’ve also watched both the “Making of” and the “History of” versions on TV). In this book, he covers a lot of ground (from Queen Victoria to VE Day), but is particularly adept and entertaining at telling the stories behind the stories. Here are just a handful of the obscure bits that absolutely fascinated/appalled me:
a)    Unsurprisingly (although still depressing), the late 19th/early 20th century Britain saw rigid class distinctions (and these were only emphasised in parliament). Indeed, scientist Francis Galton (in 1901) was keen to introduce what he called “The Possible Improvement of the Human Breed under the Existing Conditions of Law and Sentiment” – endeavouring to classify people by their ‘civic worth’. I won’t shock you with the details but, essentially, “Society should stop the lower sort from breeding so enthusiastically, and encourage the elite to breed more”! Frighteningly, many powerful and influential individuals (including Churchill!) were supportive. The messages were also “well heard” in Germany where, in 1905, an organisation called the Race Hygiene Society was formed.    
b)   Medicals from WW1 recruitment underlined the huge nutritional and health differences between the classes: “on average serving soldiers were five inches shorter than officers”!!
c)    “Failure in Flanders had led Kitchener to make one of his most chilling remarks of the war, complaining that the British commander Sir John French had wasted shells, rather than men. The men could easily be replaced, he said; the shells could not”.
d)    I was struck by how powerful/influential the press barons (eg. Northcliffe and Harmsworth) of the early 20th century were… and how it mirrors the present-day world of Murdoch and his like.
e)    Similarly, in some strange way, between Lloyd George and Trump (although the latter continues to appal me!): referring to Lloyd George: “He believed in himself, and in doing. He was increasingly drawn to self-made  and ‘go-ahead’ business people, rather than party loyalists or other MPs. His power came from his actorly self-projection…”.
f)     I certainly wasn’t aware that, at the outbreak of WW1, there were more than a thousand suffragettes in prison and that the leaders of the WSPU (Women’s Social+Political Union) were “either in jail or on the run”.
g)    I found Britain’s attitude towards and actions in the Middle East (c 1917) thoroughly depressing (“Arab humiliation”). As Marr says: “We have made-up countries with imported puppet rulers; Arab nationalism first encouraged and then mocked; extremist forms of Islam left to flourish; and the old Caliphate abolished, leading to a debate about what should replace it in the Muslim world. The consequences of the First World War amount to more than paper poppies once a year; they are all around us still”.
All this before the end of WW1! I could add far, far more examples but, hopefully, you ‘get’ my enthusiasm! Marr writes engagingly, even-handedly and knowledgeably in great detail (and with frankness and much humour). I found it an utterly compelling read.
Follow On (EW Swanton): This book was first published in 1977. Swanton was, primarily for me, a very well-loved cricket journalist and broadcaster (he died in 2000 at the age of 92) whose observations on the game were usually intelligent and sensible (although, for some, perhaps just a little too measured and dry?). He was a traditionalist and VERY much a figure of the establishment (conservative with upper and lower case ‘C’!) and this autobiographical book has constant references to players and committee men (sadly, women don’t seem to exist in his world… and, for goodness, don’t even whisper the possibility of ordained women in the Church: “to give countenance to the idea of admitting women to the priesthood… would seem to be lunacy”!!) who, it seems, were primarily from Eton, Harrow (and one or two other prominent public schools) and Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Swanton was certainly not given to romantic descriptions of the game (like Neville Cardus) and, frankly, he frequently comes across as quite a serious, almost pompous, man in this book… which is perhaps a little unfair (albeit that he’d grown up in a different age). Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed reading his thoughts on the game… and, if he was alive today, I suspect that his views on demise of County Cricket would echo my own!

Friday, April 27, 2018

the guernsey literary and potato peel pie society…

Moira and I went along to Bristol’s Cinema de Lux (no, not the Watershed… and yes, my second film in two days!)(I know) to see Mike Newell’s film "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society", based on Mary Ann Shaffer+Annie Barrows book of the same name. I read the book in 2010 (and thoroughly enjoyed it) and think it’s probably time I read it again.
It’s set in 1946 and takes the form of an exchange of letters between a writer (Juliet Ashton, played by Lily James - and very lovely she looked too) in London and a Guernsey pig farmer (Dawsey Adams, played by Michiel Huisman) – the latter being a member of the GL+PPS book club. In his letters Adams conveys some of the struggles the islanders suffered during the German occupation… and, in due course, Ashton decides to visit the book club in Guernsey to learn more of their stories.
As I suspected, I didn’t enjoy the film anything like as much as I’d enjoyed the book.
The film was too sugar-coated for my taste (and the same applied to the sections which included musical accompaniment – which was all a little too soft and ‘twinkly’!).
It all looked rather beautiful and cosy – but just a little too charming, if you know what I mean. The Guernsey Tourist Board will no doubt be delighted – even if, apparently, much of it was filmed in Devon and Cornwall (not to mention Bristol harbourside!). The film script invented lots of stuff that wasn’t in the book and I also thought Michiel Huisman seemed a strange choice for the Dawsey character (Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian describes him thus: “one of the handsomest pig-farmers in the world, a stubbled exquisite”!).
But, hey, having said all that, I found it a perfectly enjoyable, feel-good film – just right for a rainy Sunday afternoon perhaps, when you’ve nothing better to do?
Photo: Film poster with Bristol’s very own ‘Balmoral’ ship in the background.
PS: I’d forgotten my previous experiences of Cinema de Lux – a) over half an hour of adverts and previews before the film(!) and b) just how ridiculously loud the sound system was (I would go as far as to describe it as ‘unbearable’!).