Wednesday, July 23, 2014

uk and the arms trade


Yes, I probably have a very simplistic view of the world of politics and global business, but news that the UK was exporting arms to Russia (despite David Cameron’s previous assertion that an absolute arms embargo had been put in place) should come as no surprise. According to a cross-party group of MPs, there are more than 200 licences in place to sell arms to Putin’s government.
Please note, I’m certainly NOT claiming that this is some sort of Tory conspiracy, because I’m fully aware that ALL UK governments over recent decades have been actively encouraging the growth of arm sales in this country.
I find it all SO depressing.
I suggest you read this article by Owen Jones in today’s Guardian to get a sense of the scale of the UK arms trade.
Presently, the only meaningful constraint on arms exports is political embarrassment. Restrictions on arms sales are put in place when particularly shaming sales are uncovered
or when a buyer, to the Government’s apparent shock, uses the weaponry it has bought.
UK governments have consistently tried to justify the arms trade on the basis that:
a)    Arms exports are important for national security
b)   They’re vital to the UK economy and jobs, and
c)    They’re stringently regulated.
The “Campaign Against Arms Trade” argues that such “justifications” are all false.
Here are some extracts from CAAT’s website:
1. The 55,000 arms export jobs comprise less than 0.2% of the UK workforce.
2. The exports themselves are less than 1.5% of total UK exports, and even this is an overestimate of their importance as 40% of the value of the exports was imported in the first place.
3. Arms exports are subsidised by the taxpayer (27% UK Government research expenditure is spent on arms and 54% UK Trade+Investment staff committed to selling arms).
4. There is an engineering skills shortage.
5. High profile arms export deals rarely result in significant UK jobs as production moves overseas. In August 2010, BAE sold 57 Hawk jets to India in the headline deal of a David Cameron-led trade delegation to the country. All of the aircraft will be made in India and, while the deal is worth £700 million, it will generate only 200 jobs in the UK.

Of the 16 countries identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as locations of major armed conflict in 2009, the UK sold arms to 12.
In the Foreign Office Report (2010) on Human Rights and Democracy, the following countries were “UK arms buyers” on the Foreign Office’s list of countries with “the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns”:
Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Vietnam and Yemen.
And it’s ALL being done in OUR name.

Monday, July 14, 2014

yes… women bishops at last


The Church of England Synod’s vote in November 2012 against women bishops marked the end of my time worshipping in the Anglican Church. At that time, I posted this blog and said that, following the vote, my "separate, personal, lonely journey starts today”.
So, you can perhaps imagine my enthusiastic response to today’s news that Synod has overwhelmingly voted to allow women bishops (only 45 lay members of the synod voted against it and 152 in favour. The majorities among bishops and clergy were even greater).
I’m absolutely delighted and relieved by today’s outcome… and delighted for so many of my Anglican/Christian friends.
So today’s decision means that I can abandon my futile(?) protest against the institution that calls itself the Church of England… well, actually, I’m afraid not.
Yes, for the past 18 months or so I HAVE been on a separate, personal, lonely spiritual journey… but, in that time, I’ve found myself reeling against the institutional church on so many things and I certainly don’t think I’m currently anywhere near returning to the Anglican Church fold - I won’t rule it out at some time in the future but, for now, I’m continuing in my spiritual wilderness.
Since November 2012, I’ve read many books that I’ve found helpful (and, indeed, I’ve re-read books that I’d previously been encouraged by). Books by Richard Holloway, Ian Adams, Basil Hume, Jonathan Sacks, John O’Donohue, Peter Millar, Kathy Galloway, Mourid Barghouti, Kader Abdolah, Dave Broom, Billy Collins, Tony Benn, Martyn Percy, Sara Maitland, Alice Munro, Jane Bentley+Neil Paynter have all proved invaluable… and I’m sure there will be others in the future.
Yes, I’m sure there will be people who read this post and want to shake some sense into me… and give me any number of reasons to return to the Church of England. The fact remains that, while I’m still unsure about my own faith journey, it’s far better for me to remain in “exile” than to return still an angry man (perhaps a little over dramatic, but I was certainly finding myself coming out of church after a service regularly feeling angry and frustrated… and, despite today’s good news, I don’t think the frustration (and the anger?) will have subsided sufficiently.
So, I'm still wondering and wandering...

june/july 2014 books


More book stuff:
The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer): This is our Book Group’s next book (but I’ve read it so far in advance of our next discussion that I might have to read it again!). It’s a novel about a young schizophrenic man struggling with guilt. It’s a story of grief, madness and loss. It’s a deeply moving, funny and incredibly impressive first novel (as well as a performance poet and writer, Filer is also a registered mental health nurse). It’s quite, quite brilliant – one of those compelling books that you just want to read in one sitting.
The Men Who Stare At Goats (Jon Ronson): I haven’t seen the film but, as you might guess from its title, this is something of a bizarre book. I spent much of the time reading the book thinking the author had made up the entire narrative… but, worryingly, as Ronson tells readers in the book’s first five words: “this is a true story”. It’s the author’s investigation into “psychological warfare” techniques used by America’s elite Special Forces. I’ve just read Tim Adams’s review in the Observer from 2004 which ends as follows: “…not only a narcotic road trip through the wackier reaches of Bush's war effort, but also an unmissable account of some of the insanity that has lately been done in our names”. I can only agree with him. The book is hilarious, incredible and frighteningly scary.
Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Janet Malcolm): I don’t think I’ve ever read any of Gertrude Stein’s work so, when I bought this in the £3 bookshop, it rather felt as if I was going “out on a limb” in choosing this. I was somewhat intrigued to learn more about the forty-year relationship of Stein (American writer of novels, poetry and plays, fervent collector of Modernist art, friends of the likes of Picasso and Hemingway) with Alice Toklas and how this “pair of elderly Jewish lesbians” had survived the Nazis whilst living in France. Sadly, this never really gets explained – neither Stein nor Toklas seems ever to have acknowledged to anyone, least of all themselves(!), that they were Jewish and therefore in a highly vulnerable position. I have to say, I really came to dislike Stein as I read the book - she comes across as someone shamelessly certain of her own literary genius; I found many of her quoted passages unreadable and/or hugely awkward; and she was a supporter of Franco and an early advocate of Hitler (who, she suggested, should be given the Nobel prize for getting rid of conflict in Germany!). Although Stein had willed much of her estate to Toklas, including their shared art collection (some of them Picassos) housed in their apartment, the couple's relationship had no legal recognition. As the paintings appreciated in value, Stein's relatives took action to claim them, eventually removing them from Toklas's residence while she was away on vacation and placing them in a bank vault. Toklas then relied on contributions from friends as well as writing to make a living. It all goes to make a remarkable story – but, sadly, one which I personally found didn’t quite make its mark.
Of Human Bondage (W Somerset Maugham): This is a very long book (some 700 pages) and, given its weight and the resulting implications for trying to read it in bed, is the best argument for converting to a Kindle – but no, I’ll stick to the old fashioned book format  (at least for the time being)! I’ve really enjoyed every Somerset Maugham book I’ve read and this was no exception. This is probably his best-known book (published in 1915) and tells the story of an orphaned boy who is raised by a religious aunt and uncle and who leaves home (and school) at 18 to pursue a career as an artist in Paris and then on to London to study to be a doctor… but it’s also a book about poverty, sexual infatuation, freedom, beauty and connection. For me, Somerset Maugham writes with a simple elegance that I find very appealing.  
The Ascent of Rum Doodle (W E Bowman): A rough description of this book might be: “Mountaineering’s equivalent of ‘Three Men in a Boat’”. It tells the completely fanciful story of a group of English gentlemen who set out to conquer the ascent of a spoof 40,000-and-a-foot peak. Published in 1956 (the author had never actually climbed a mountain!), this is an outrageous, ridiculous but funny book… featuring (amongst other things): a team guide who was constantly getting himself lost (search parties had to sent out); a hapless team photographer who accidently, but predictably, ruined the entire stock of used film of the expedition; a team doctor who insisted on including several cases of champagne as part of the medical supplies etc etc. It’s a short, amusing and very readable book.

Friday, July 11, 2014

boyhood


I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see “Boyhood”, the much-acclaimed Richard Linklater film – filmed with the same group of actors over a twelve year period (from 2002 to 2013). It’s certainly a remarkable film in terms of its concept and, clearly, the critics have absolutely loved it. For example, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw (whose opinions I value highly) gave it a 5-star rating and described it as “one of the great films of the decade” and Robbie Collin in the Telegraph reckons it was “an achievement of a lifetime” (and also gave it 5 stars).
There were indeed some excellent things about the film, such as:
a)      I loved the time-lapse study of a boy aged 5 growing into manhood and was genuinely intrigued to see him develop physically (and how the various characters changed/evolved)
b)      I liked Mason’s “ordinariness” as a character and the fact that the film wasn’t based on a series of big dramatic set-pieces.
c)       The principal family characters were beautifully portrayed.
d)      I suspect everyone who sees the film will automatically find themselves reflecting on their own lives (as children, as parents, as siblings…).
e)      Very cleverly put together and with beautiful aesthetic consistency.
But (and perhaps I shouldn’t admit this), I actually found the film somewhat tedious, contrived and even banal, at times…  at one stage, the “boy” Mason character (played by Ellar Coltrane) mumbled to his birth-father (played by Ethan Hawke) “what’s the point of it all?” and, in some ways, this could be my own reaction to the film.
Why aren’t I raving about the film when, it seems, everyone else is?
Maybe I just found the American way of life depicted rather depressing? Perhaps it was that it didn’t really have a point to make and was simply trying to tell a story of “normal” (whatever that is) family life? Maybe it was because the whole thing was false… real actors in a real time-lapse telling a completely made-up story?
No doubt, I’ll continue to reflect on the film over the coming days but, as things stand, I would only give it three or four stars!
But hey! Don’t let me put you off… afterall, everyone else seems to have enjoyed it!

Saturday, July 05, 2014

the hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared


I’d previously read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Jonas Jonasson’s bizarre and entertaining book about the unlikely adventures of a man who avoids attending his own 100th birthday party by climbing out of the window of his room in an old people’s home. It therefore seemed only right that I saw Felix Herngren’s film version when it opened at the Watershed yesterday afternoon. The book version is long and complicated, so I was fascinated to see how successful (or not) the director would be in adapting it into a film of less than 2 hours in length. In the event, I thought he did pretty well. My one real reservation relates to having one actor (49 year-old Robert Gustafsson) portraying a character who ages from a late teenager to a centenarian (complete with very heavy make-up). Compared with the book, this was always going to be difficult and, for me, so it proved.
One of the entertaining bonuses (if slightly annoying at times!) was that, somewhat predictably for matinee performances, the vast majority of the modest audience consisted of “old people” (yes, I know, just like me… but even a little older!) who clearly had no prior knowledge of the story (or the book) and spent much of the afternoon conversing in rather loud stage whispers about the film’s plot and/or “ooohing and aaahing” when surprising things happened on screen!
If you’re up for a romp, this film’s for you!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

camille claudel 1915


I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see my first film since my hip operation… only now can I face the prospect of sitting on a non-raised seat for 90 minutes or so! The film in question was Bruno Dumont’s “Camille Claudel 1915” starring one of my favourite actors, Juliette Binoche. It tells the harrowing story of the celebrated and gifted sculptor Camille Claudel, one-time protégé and lover of Auguste Rodin, who was committed to an asylum in 1913 by her younger brother Paul, following the death of her father. Claudel appeals impotently against her imprisonment – where her claims of persecution are seen as proof of her “madness” (alleged poisoning of her food, abandonment by her family and theft of her art by Rodin). The film deals with just three days of her life in the asylum – at a time when she still had hope of being released. Tragically, she lived in confinement for 30 years until her death in 1943.
The film is based on Claudel’s medical records and the letters between her and her sanctimonious brother (who, according to Wikipedia, visited her just 7 times in 30 years) and, somewhat controversially, is filmed in a French asylum, using actual residents as the supporting cast – and their presence acts to underline the unfairness of Claudel’s incarceration.
It’s a tragic, upsetting but quite brilliant film. Binoche gives a simply stunningly performance.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

sketchbook…


As some of you will be aware, I started my “One Day Like This” blog in September 2012 – posting a daily photograph or drawing on alternate days. Thus far, I’ve posted well over 300 drawings and 300 photographs. Until quite recently, I was producing drawings in various A4 spiral-bound sketchbooks and then ripping out individual sheets and scanning them for blog purposes. In February this year, however, I was given a smaller, A5 “hardback” sketchbook and decided that I would keep the sketchbook in tact and NOT to rip out individual pages (ie. simply scan in situ as it were).
Four months later, I’ve now used up the entire sketchbook… and I’ve found the whole process strangely liberating. The A5 format is much handier for carrying around in my shoulder bag and (perhaps encouraged by its smaller size?) I’ve found myself become far less “precious” about the resulting drawings. One of the bonuses has been that I’ve speeded up my sketching “technique” – with many of my drawings now taking me no more than 10-20 minutes to produce and far more being drawn “on the spot” rather than perhaps a combination of on-the-spot and photographs.
I’m not quite sure where to go from here (but I have been given a rather lovely A4 hardback sketchbook recently!), but I’ll certainly be continuing to post drawings on my blog every other day.
Photo: the finished sketchbook (not that you can see all 62 pages of scribbles!).

Friday, June 06, 2014

may-june 2014 books


More book stuff:
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): I’m rather ashamed to admit that I’d not read any Marquez books before now, so it’s good that it was chosen as our book group’s next book. It’s a long and complicated story of six generations of Buendia family in the mythical town of Macondo. It describes (at times, very amusingly) the outrageous, complex, fantastic life of Macondo going through laborious alternate cycles of prosperity, war and decay before finally being swept back into the swamp by a cyclone. Although I did enjoy the book, there were times when I found it rather too unrelenting in its detail and I certainly had great difficulty in trying to remember the names of the key characters (particularly as many of the names were repeated!).
Dear Life (Alice Munro): A collection of beautifully-written, melancholic, dignified, short stories (ending with four “not quite stories” that verge upon autobiographical reflections) set in post-war Canada. Unshowy, and yet, each one quite haunting and memorable. 
The Railway Detective (Edward Marston): Set in London at the time of 1851 Great Exhibition. As the name suggests, it’s crime novel (about a mail train robbery) and the blurb on the cover describes it as a “grand romp very much in the tradition of Holmes and Watson”. If only. Whilst it’s extremely readable (I read it in a day), I found the plot rather banal and the characters all appallingly stilted (the highlight of the book was a reference to Bradshaw’s railway guide!). If it’s as easy as this, I think I’m going to be a crime writer when I grow up…
The Quarry (Iain Banks): This is a book about a father dying of cancer. You’ll probably be aware that, tragically, Banks had almost finished the first draft of the book when he received news that he too was dying of the disease. I loved this book. It’s filled with the author’s gift for humour and, certainly for me, his rather left-of-centre political stance on life. As the book’s cover says: it’s about “a dying man and his only son, six old friends, a missing videotape and a reunion in a crumbling house on the edge of a quarry”. It might be about death (and at times I found it quite heartbreakingly sad) but, for me, I also found it incredibly hopeful and life-enhancing. I’m going to miss Iain Banks’ books a great deal.   
The Great Galloon: Voyage To The Volcano (Tom Banks): Another Banks’ book (Tom and Ian aren’t related!). As I noted in post about his first book, I wouldn’t normally include children books in my “reading diary”, but this one was written by our good friend Tom Banks… and is another excellent children’s book. It’s full of clever invention and is VERY funny (I’d love to hear an audio version with all Tom’s voices!)… my ONLY reservation is that I’m not a great lover of the illustrations. But hey!