Friday, May 27, 2016

mustang

Moira and I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Deniz Gamze Erguven’s film “Mustang”… set in a remote Turkish coastal village. When five orphaned sisters are spotted harmlessly playing with boys on the beach, such "scandalous" behaviour is reported to their grandmother and uncle… who begin a tyrannical regime of imprisonment (to “safeguard their marriage prospects”)… the house ends up becoming a “wife factory”… you get the general idea!
It’s a film which underlines the male dominance of Turkish society… where men seem to feel that have a “right” to pursue women for sex but, at the same time, insist on only marrying a virgin.
A very sad state of affairs.
The Watershed programme contained an extract of an interview with director Erguven in which she was critical of the “constant and hideous sexualisation of women” in Turkey. In it, she also expresses her concern about the increasing censorship in Turkey.
It’s a stark, powerful film – which thankfully includes a fair amount of humour as well as the harsh treatment of the five girls. I’ve seen a number of critics comparing the film to “The Virgin Suicides” and that’s probably appropriate… but I think that, for me, it’s the robust depiction of sisterhood that comes across most strongly.
Definitely worth seeing…

Thursday, May 26, 2016

may 2016 books…

More book stuff:
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (Penelope Mortimer): First of all, this was one of Moira’s (very) small collection of beautiful Persephone books. Not only are they are wonderful to look at, but they’re also an absolute pleasure to use (they “feel” very good to hold while you read… look, just get one yourself and try it out!). First published in 1958, this is a novel about a time when expectations of most women were to be home-makers and mothers, who stayed out of the workplace to raise their children. It’s about a middle-class woman who lives in a large house (probably in the Home Counties), whose husband works in London and who, for convenience, has a flat to enable him to work longer hours (and for the convenience of his various mistresses), whose daughter is away studying at Oxford, and whose two younger sons spend all but 16 weeks a year at Boarding School. The woman is lonely, depressed and living a life without purpose. Thanks to an excellent preface (by Valerie Grove), I’m now aware that Mortimer’s writing is invariably indivisible from her personal life (she married divorce lawyer/writer/playwright John Mortimer in 1949 and you can discern exactly what stage the Mortimers’ marriage had reached in this book). It’s a poignant, compelling story and a beautifully written, impressive book.
Quiet (Susan Cain): This is a brilliant book, written by an introvert. The front cover sums up its gist: “The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”. Moira had read it and had enthusiastically endorsed it. But why would I want to read a book about introverts? On a personal level, I suspect that most of my family and friends would categorise me as being more extravert than introvert but, interestingly (for me anyway!), I scored 13 out 20 on the book’s self-assessment survey – which rates me more introvert than extravert(?!). Cain argues persuasively about a world that, she maintains, “excessively and misguidedly respects extroverts”. Again and again, I found myself being reminded about situations in our own family and in my own career. Cain talks about the need, for example, for artists and designers (amongst others) to have “extra quiet and privacy in order to do their best work”; she talks about schools (and corporations) where being a “team player” is seen as the only path to “success”; she even refers to research that points to “forceful extroverts” being responsible for the global financial crash! She talks about Harvard Business School where socialising is "an extreme sport". Cain had to persuade a publisher she could conquer her stage fright and promote herself at book festivals before they agreed to take her on. In America, extroverted parents have been known to send their introverted children to psychiatrists to have their introversion "treated" out of them. We admire extroverts because they're charismatic, chatty and self-assured, but Cain maintains we're committing a grave error structuring our society around based on such a premise. She also helpfully (for me) and frequently made her points by relating stories of “real people” and their situations. If I do have a criticism, it’s the huge of number of psychologists she cites in conveying her arguments, but hey! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking book and a surprising and rewarding one too.
If you haven’t got time to read the book for yourself(!), then please check out this 20 minute TED talk to get a flavour.
My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante): This is our Book Group’s next book. It’s the first of four novels that make up “The Neapolitan Novels”. The book’s narrator, Elena Graco, recalls her childhood and early adolescence in Naples in the late 1950s, where she meets her “brilliant friend”, Lila Cerullo, at school. They both come from relatively impoverished households, they are both clever, but very different (James Wood in The New Yorker describes Lila as “feral, quick, unafraid, vicious in word and deed” while Elena remains on the academic straight and narrow). It’s a powerful, impressive book about Sicilian poverty and deprivation, hopes and ambition, violence and honour - where men dominate society and family feuds are commonplace. The two main characters are wonderfully portrayed. An enthralling, intense book.
The Squire (Enid Bagnold): Another beautiful Persephone book (this relates to the book as an object, rather than the quality of the novel!)... again, I borrowed Moira’s copy. It was first published 1938 and, according to the book’s jacket, Bagnold herself “led a sociable, comfortable, servanted life” and this novel very much encapsulates a similar middle class existence. “The Squire” is in fact a reference to the wife (her husband spends 3 months of the year in India on business) who heads the family of five children – including one by the name of Boniface(!) - and runs a household of seven staff. The wife is in her mid-forties and, in many ways, is a reflection of Bagnold’s own life and attitudes towards middle age with respect to sex and the family (the author herself had four children). Men are essentially eliminated from the book altogether – the butler being the one occasional exception. I found the references to non-family members (staff and Caroline, the squire’s more attractive, aristocratic friend and neighbour… who is “pursued by men”!) slightly more interesting than the squire or her children but, overall, I found myself constantly reacting against the privileged, upper middle-class way of life the book portrayed.
A Song Flung Up To Heaven (Maya Angelou): I’ve been a big fan of Maya Angelou over the years… and have especially loved listening to her voice. I read “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (the first volume of her autobiography) several years ago, but hadn’t read (until now) any of the others – this is the sixth out seven. It recalls the time she returned to America, after a few years living in Ghana, at the height of the civil rights movement. She was returning to work with Malcolm X – who had created a foundation called the Organisation of African-American Unity… and intended to approach the UN world council to intercede on the part of beleaguered blacks. Within days of her return, Malcolm X had been shot dead. The book describes her life at a time of an extraordinarily exciting and tragic political period – including her acquaintance with Martin Luther King and ‘Jimmy’ Baldwin. Despite the cruelty, discrimination and poverty she experienced in her life, the book is full of her compassion, wisdom and wit. I’ll no doubt be reading the other volumes in due course.

Monday, May 23, 2016

chilcott…

The long-awaited Chilcott Report (it’s taken nearly SEVEN years to produce!) is due to be published on 6 July 2016 - a fortnight after the EU Referendum. According to today’s Independent newspaper, Tony Blair (and other government officials, including Jack Straw) is set to be savaged in an “absolutely brutal” verdict on the failings of the occupation.
Like so many UK citizens, I opposed the war and, like hundreds of thousands, joined the London anti-war protest march on 15 February 2003.

I’ve just re-read my letter dated 25 January 2003 sent to Prime Minister Blair (he must have received thousands along similar lines), his Cabinet, the Leader of the Opposition (Iain Duncan Smith), the Leader of the Liberal Democrats (Charles Kennedy) and my MP at the time, Boris Johnson. It’s a sickening reminder of politics of power (I was tempted to write “egotistical political legacies”!) and the devastating implications of war. This is what I wrote:
Dear Mr Blair
I am writing to express my very deep concern at your Government's apparent commitment to go to war with Iraq.  A sceptical view would suggest that a decision had already been taken to invade Iraq - irrespective of public opinion in this country or support from the UN Security Council - and that the Government was merely "going through the motions" of securing evidence and justification to do so while the UK/USA forces take up their positions. 
As a committed Christian (and as someone who has voted for the Labour Party over the past twenty years or so, and who wholehearted celebrated the arrival of the Labour Government in 1997!), I feel a real sense of unease at recent developments and your Governments' handling of the situation.  I would seriously question the morality and legality of war against Iraq at the present time and would urge that force should be considered only as a last resort - and, crucially, ONLY with UN support.
Whilst there seems little doubt about the evil nature of Saddam's regime, I feel it is essential that any action against it should only be taken if it can be proved that Iraq is in breach of the UN resolution and, at this stage, we still await evidence from the UN weapon inspectors.  When the decision was taken to send the inspectors back into Iraq, there was a sense of "now we'll be able to show the world that Iraq holds weapons of mass destruction"; only weeks later, the UK/USA Administrations are saying that weapons inspections "could not continue for unlimited time".  Condemning Iraq for failing to prove a negative would hardly appear to count as justification for war.
Whilst I can obviously see the justification of ridding the world of any weapons of mass destruction, I am far from convinced that the consequences of any invasion have been properly thought through.  To my mind, a war will almost certainly result in unpredictable and unintended consequences - high numbers of civilian casualties; the death of many servicemen and women; more instability and violent chain reactions in the already volatile Middle East; more anti-American and British sentiment around the world; and, almost certainly, even more terrorism.
Regardless of your exhortations, public opinion in this country has remained stubbornly sceptical about the need for war with Iraq - people are not convinced that the threat from Saddam is great enough to justify war; people are suspicious of US President George Bush.  There is wide-spread opposition to war from church leaders - throughout the world.
You have predicted that the public would eventually back a war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq if other means of disarming him failed.  You said this week that we had not reached the circumstances where you told the British people we were in conflict with Iraq but that "when and if that time came, people would find the reasons acceptable and satisfactory because there is no other route available to us".  The time needed to persuade us (or not) could be very limited; there is speculation that, irrespective of any support from the UN, war could start by the end of February.  Unless convincing evidence is produced within this time, it would appear that this country could be at war with Iraq without the support of the British people - an alarming prospect in a democratic society, with potentially devastating consequences for the future of this country and the world.
Yours sincerely
Steven Broadway
cc            all members of The Cabinet
cc            Mr Iain Duncan Smith MP, Leader of the Opposition
cc            Mr Charles Kennedy MP, Liberal Democrat Leader
cc            Mr Boris Johnson MP (Henley Constituency)

Blair opened a debate in parliament on 18 March 2003 (click here to read his full speech). On 20 March, starting with an air strike on the presidential palace in Baghdad, a combined force of troops from The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain and Poland invaded Iraq…
The invasion consisted of 21 days of “major combat operations”.
At no time did the United Nations Security Council support a resolution backing the war.
At a cost of $1billion, 1,625 UN and US inspectors had spent two years searching for weapons of mass destruction.
None were ever found.
It’s absolutely scandalous that the Chilcott Report has taken so long to be published. All the key players have long since disappeared from the main political stage… but their shameful legacy remains.
Photo: from The Huffington Post

Thursday, May 05, 2016

tom robinson…

I went along to St George’s last night to hear Tom Robinson.
The venue is usually full but, last night, as I sat upstairs in the gallery before the concert started, the place was barely one-third full. Not a very good omen, I thought…
Well, how wrong can you be!
With only a brief break, Robinson talked and sang for over two-and-a-hours… about his musical journey, but also about his fight for gay rights, his fight against fascism… together with some of the stories behind his songs, the people he met over the years and his appalling treatment by the Sunday People newspaper.
It proved to be an intimate, entertaining, funny and poignant evening… Robinson is an excellent communicator (and a very good musician!). I love the fact that, despite getting banned by the BBC for being “Glad to be Gay” in 1976, he’s subsequently presented programmes on all seven of the corporation’s national radio networks! He made a number of references to his age during the evening… which made me feel a little ancient (he’s a year younger than me!).
It was a great evening – the audience was completely captivated by Robinson from the start (at times, it was almost as if he was sitting in the corner of a bar talking to friends and playing his guitar).
He’s touring the show around the country over the course of May; this was the first evening of the tour… if you get a chance to see him, then I highly recommend that you do so.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

son of saul

I went along to the Watershed yesterday to see Laszlo Nemes’ acclaimed film “Son of Saul” (winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Golden Globe) – an unforgettable Holocaust drama set in the Aushwitz II-Birkenau death camp in 1944 (I still struggle to realise that the holocaust happened just FIVE years before I was born).
Saul (brilliantly played by Géza Röhrig), is a Jewish prisoner who has been made part of the Sonderkommando, inmates given tiny, temporary privileges in return for policing their own extermination. They have to deal with the day-to-day business of herding bewildered prisoners out of the trains and up to the very doors of the gas chambers… and then removing the bodies. The film pulls no punches. It actually STARTS with a gas chamber scene.
It was shot entirely on 35mm film, and for most of it, the focus is on Saul’s agonised face, in tight close-up almost throughout - with the surrounding and background details often left blurred or indistinctly glimpsed.
In the gas chamber, Saul discovers the body of a boy, whom he believes to be his son, and he sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give him a proper burial.
At times, I found it difficult to understand precisely what was going on… but, ultimately, this didn’t matter.
It’s a completely uncompromising and remarkable film. Unrelenting and courageous.
It’s not an easy film to watch, but one that I highly recommend that you do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

april 2016 books…

More book stuff:
The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Richard Flanagan): A simply brilliant, exhausting book… about, amongst other things, the despair, degradation and nightmare of a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. Reading it, I felt as though I was actually experiencing what it must have been like to be a prisoner. The book’s flysheet describes it as a “savagely beautiful novel… about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth…” – and I can’t argue with that. Flanagan is a wonderful writer and I was particularly drawn to his focus on how hard it is to live after survival. Dedicated to his father (Prisoner 335 – who, himself, was a POW prisoner), it’s a book about the incredible power of the human spirit. A stunning, wonderfully powerful book – probably in my all-time top ten list of books. Yes, THAT good!
Attention All Shipping (Charlie Connelly): Moira found this book in a charity shop and thought it would appeal to me. It’s essentially a book about the Shipping Forecast – or, rather, the thirty-one sea areas that make up the Met Office’s Shipping Forecast on Radio4. Connelly decides it would be a good idea to take a journey around all these sea areas. Frankly, it took me some time to “get into” the book. It seemed like a pretty spurious excuse for a book and, initially at least, I found his “humour” just a little tiresome and a “bit over-the-top”. However, I gradually warmed to both his task and his writing style and the book proved to be a fascinating, informative and amusing travel book.
Ariel (Sylvia Plath): Plath died in 1963. She committed suicide, aged just 30. She was married to Ted Hughes and I’d previously read his book of poems (“Birthday Letters”), published 35 years after Plath’s death. I have to admit I struggled somewhat with “Ariel” (published in 1965) – the writing is beautifully eloquent but, all too often, I found myself labouring over the meaning of individual poems (perhaps my intellect just wasn’t up to it?!) and yearned to read some background notes for each of them to help put them in context. I found them very dark and they frequently seemed to point to her impending suicide. Interestingly, I’ve just read an article by Lauren Niland in The Guardian, dated October 2012 (“Sylvia Plath – reviews from the archive”) in which she points out that: “The majority of her poetry was published posthumously, and most of the reviews of her work react against the knowledge of her suicide. Reading through reviews of her work, before her poetry became so intrinsically linked to her death, is an interesting experiment”… Bernard Bergonzi, for example, had reviewed her first collection of poems (published in 1960) and had admired Plath’s “highly personal tone and way of looking at the world", concluding that he "read this collection with considerable pleasure". By and large, it was only AFTER her death that her “Ariel” poems “established the idea that she raced headlong into suicide through her art”, as Niland puts it.
Starter For Ten (David Nicholls): This is a book (published in 2003) about a student (Brian Jackson) in his first year at university in 1985. The “Starter for Ten” title is a reference to Jackson’s place on the college’s University Challenge team. It felt like I was reading a book entitled “Adrian Mole, aged eighteen-and-a-quarter”… it was entertaining, funny and, at the same time, an excruciating reminder of all those embarrassing memories of my early years of university life (actually, not ALL my early memories are embarrassing, I hasten to add!). An enjoyable, albeit “unchallenging”, read.
Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton): Published in 1911, this short novel is about life in a fictional, desolate town in New England. Ethan Frome is a man with a history of thwarted dreams. He and his never-happy and sickly wife are joined by his wife’s cousin (who lives with them to help out around the house and farm). It’s a sad, haunting, compelling tale of their relationship – told in “flashback” form, 24 years after a life-changing incident. I found it a very good read.

Monday, April 25, 2016

music at saint stephen’s, bristol…

I know we’re coming a little late to the party (as it were), but Moira and I have been to a couple of excellent concerts at Saint Stephen’s Church – right in the heart of Bristol city centre – over the past three days.
The first one was last Saturday evening, entitled “Sanctuary”, hosted by Friendly Stage Bristol and Foundation Bristol, featuring The Rubber Wellies (followed by an Open Mic session) – in aid of the wonderful, local charity B-Friend, who work with refugees. Lots of happy people in attendance, a great atmosphere and fine music (and a lot of money raised for B-Friend). I think there’s another Friendly Stage evening being organised for later in the year.
The second was today’s “Monday Lunchtime Concert” (1.10-1.55pm and free!). These have been happening every week (except Bank Holidays) for quite a long time - certainly well before we became members of the Community of Saint Stephen’s, 9 months or so ago. Today’s concert featured the excellent singer songwriter Rosie Sleightholme (who has a voice to match Judy Collins and Eddi Reader and an ability to play guitar, ukulele, banjo and piano - plus, apparently, cello, violin, electric bass and zither(!) – to an extremely high standard!).

The type of music at these concerts varies. I see that May’s programme includes a jazz-rocker teaming up with a trumpeter; an eclectic concert featuring TWO double bassists; and a singer/guitarist playing Americana+Country Blues.
Not only that, there’s a concert this Thursday, 28 April at 8pm (tickets £7, I think?), featuring highly-acclaimed folk singer Saska Griffiths-Moore plus three other top Bristol female singers (tickets from www.bristolticketshop.co.uk).
Saint Stephen’s Café is also now open again and well worth a visit (9.30am-3.30pm Monday to Friday)… and features informal music sessions most Fridays in the café (one or two sets, sometime between 12 noon and 3pm). These have only recently started but, already, are proving to be very popular.
You can find out more on the Saint Stephen’s website: http://www.saint-stephens.com/

Talking to some of the people involved in organising these concerts/sessions, I sense that Saint Stephen’s is going to become an increasingly important centre for music and performance within the city over the next five years.
Exciting times!
Photos: Rosie Sleightholme at today’s lunchtime concert (top) and The Rubber Wellies at the “Sanctuary” concert on Saturday 23 April (bottom).