Thursday, August 27, 2015

august 2015 books

More book stuff:
Cultural Amnesia (Clive James): Published in 2007, this mammoth book of over 850 pages (which makes bedtime reading a little tricky!) took James 40 years to write. It’s organised from A to Z and contains over 100 essays. It’s been described as “the ultimate guide to the 20th century” and I wouldn’t argue with that at all. The essays take the form of James’s brief biography/background context of some of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists and philosophers of the 20th century (and before)… from Louis Armstrong to Sigmund Freud via Frank Kafka, Marcel Proust (you get the idea), followed by one of their quotes, followed in turn by James’s own reflections – which frequently refer to such things as when he first bought a copy of a book or saw a performance or a conversation. Over the past 20 years or so, I have continued to be amazed by the massive depth of James’s knowledge… and its diversity (and, yes, I appreciate that James has never been embarrassed to show off his intellect!). Just as an example, I paused at the end of the piece on Georg Cristoph Lichtenburg, 1742-99 (yes, there were MANY people in the book that I’d never heard of!)… in it, James had made references to his first experience of seeing a Lautrec painting… which tumbled into his reflections on Barbirelli’s Berlin concerts at the end of WW2… which in turn developed into what the Greeks made of Helen’s beauty… and on to feminism in the late 20th century… then the writings of Thomas Mann… and “The Great Gatsby”… and Solzhenitsyn, Sartre, Kingsley Amis… Chekhov etc etc. This chapter alone probably contained references to over 50 books he’d read (and quoted from) or music he “knew” intimately or… I could go on! A couple of other (slightly quirky?) observations of the book: he uses the word “humanist” or “humanism” in at least every other essay and he also frequently tries to encourage to language students – such as “students who want to make a start with Spanish could do worse than to track Vargas Llosa through his essays” (something that James had clearly done in developing his own wide-ranging language skills). James has been a long-time hero of mine… this is a wonderful book (with some minor reservations) – informative, pithy, endearing and frequently amusing.
Sentenced To Life (Clive James): Yes, another Clive James’s book (sorry) – this time a book of poems written between 2011 and 2014, after James had been diagnosed with terminal illness (“leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure – ‘the lot’”). It’s a really beautiful, poignant, enriching book… of his guilt, his regrets, his illness, his family and life, but also about how his condition has given him time and space to appreciate things that he’d previously hardly noticed or just taken for granted – like rain and nature. Take this example from the poem “Sentenced to Life”:  
Once I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

His poem “Japanese Maple” has rightly, in my view, been highly acclaimed via the internet/social media. James has been quoted as being “embarrassed at having lived with his death so long” (he certainly hadn’t anticipated seeing much beyond last Autumn), but he’s still here and I, for one, am mightily grateful for that. A book I’ll continue to treasure for many years to come.
The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald): I’d never read this book (or seen any of the film versions) but, encouraged by Clive James’s various comments on it, I thought I’d give it a “go”. First published in 1925, it paints a picture of a lifestyle and a decade that is both fascinating and horrific… about the American dream in a time when it had descended into decadence – an era, known for unprecedented economic prosperity, the evolution of jazz music, flapper culture, bootlegging and other criminal activity, is plausibly depicted in the novel. Loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s own experiences/acquaintances… idolising the very rich and their seductive and exciting lifestyle… with, for some, brutal consequences. Beautifully crafted writing.
Dancing Barefoot - The Patti Smith Story (Dave Thompson): Although I’ve got her album “Land” (1975-2002), I’ve never really been a big fan of Patti Smith (or her music). I still see her as the loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, provocative, anarchistic, geeky singer/poet she was in the 1970s/80s. She’s clearly now seen as an important figure of the rock/punk era… and probably rightly so. This biography, published in 2011, is perhaps what you’d expect from a musical journalist (well, what I anticipated, at least) – full of glib phrases and re-hashed quotes. Its saving grace is that it also fills in some of the interesting background details. It’s also made me play her music again… and, crucially, to watch some of her LIVE performances on YouTube.  
Life After Life (Kate Atkinson): This is our Book Group’s latest book. My book’s cover included the following words of description: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?... Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?  This multi-layered, complex novel follows the story of Ursula Todd – and lives out a number of her lives starting (again and again) in 1910. This intriguing synopsis might sound somewhat bizarre, but it’s a key premise of the book. Atkinson is a hugely-gifted, intelligent and inventive writer. She has an extraordinary ability to evoke the past and also to find humour and warmth - even in life’s grimmest circumstances. I really enjoyed this clever, intriguing book. I’d previously only read one other novel by Kate Atkinson (Behind The Scenes At The Museum – excellent!) and definitely need read more of her work. Quite brilliant.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

mistress america


Gareth, Eilidh, Ed, Moira+I went to the Watershed this MORNING (yes, I know AND the second cinema trip in three days!) to see Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America”, featuring Greta Gerwig (as Brooke, prospective step-sister to Tracy and a 30 year-old “Manhattanite” with a history of enthusiasm, failed business ideas and desperate keenness to impress) and Lola Kirke (as 18 year-old Tracy, a college freshman in New York who dislikes her peers and who wants to be a writer).
I have to say that I was really looking forward to it – I’d seen Baumbach’s film “Frances Ha” a couple of years ago (also starring Greta Gerwig) – but, despite some excellent reviews the film has received, I’m afraid I was somewhat disappointed.
Gerwig is undoubtedly a brilliant, charismatic actor, but I found her machinegun-like delivery hard to decipher (and take) on occasions. Surprisingly, I found Kirke a far more convincing character.
Despite the fact that the film was very funny at times and that there were lots of impressive one-liners (none of which I can remember, of course!), I actually found it just TOO frenetic (“Friends” on drugs?). The first 30 minutes or so seemed to establish the synopsis and characters well, but then, to my mind, things seemed to get bogged down and lose the plot. It pulled itself together a little by the end… but, sadly, too late to win me over.
Maybe this kind of “in-your-face” American lifestyle and/or humour just isn’t for me… or maybe I just disliked the desperate focus on “career awareness” and need for “success”?

Monday, August 24, 2015

gemma bovery


Moira+I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Anne Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovery”. It’s essentially a re-imagining of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel… which itself is a re-imagining of Flaubert’s literary classic “Madame Bovery”. I used to love the Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strip in “The Guardian” and the film proved to be a gentle, charming way to spend a wet Monday afternoon (one of the few occasions when we’ve been to daytime cinema when it hasn’t been sunny outside!). The plot revolves around an English couple (Gemma Arterton and Jason Flemyng) who move into a small Normandy village. Their new neighbour (Fabrice Luchini) is the local baker and resident Flaubert fan – who just can’t believe that his new neighbours seem to replicate the behaviour of his favourite fictional characters. I won’t give much more away – except that Gemma has a passion for younger men(!)…
Fabrice Luchini (Martin) is superb as the baker/neighbour and Gemma Arterton (Gemma) is rather beautiful (and also gives a very good performance)! When Martin gives Gemma the novel to read, her response is: "Nothing happens but, at the same time, it is interesting"… and that probably just about sums up the film.
Enjoyable and worth seeing (especially on a wet afternoon).

Sunday, August 16, 2015

soaring student rents…


The headline in the leading article in today’s Observer states: “Soaring student rents push college accommodation to brink of crisis”. Half of undergraduates struggle to pay bills (‘twas ever the case?) – rents rose by 25% between 2010 and 2013; living costs outstrip loans. One of the troubles is that private developers have moved in on the student accommodation market.
There are something like 48,000 students at Bristol’s two universities – which is about a tenth of the city’s population. In the “olden days” when I was at university, student accommodation was all about spartan rooms and shared bathrooms (actually, it still seemed to be pretty much like this even when our daughters were at university 15-20 years ago!). In my first year, I stayed at digs which cost me 7 guineas(!) a week for bed and breakfast.
About a year ago(?), I remember highlighting a photograph on facebook of a “luxury student accommodation” hoarding (scandalous!!) I spotted in the centre (which I now can’t locate – the development was being undertaken by Prime Student Living)… but this excellent article by Alex Rankin in “The Bristol Cable”, from last February, summarises things perfectly. Here are some extracts:
Within the last couple of years, a raft of new developments have sprung up across town, offering would-be students an exclusive living experience. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the area around Nelson Street, formerly the site of the See No Evil street art gallery. It’s currently a frenzy of building activity with New Bridewell police station and the Magistrates Court razed to the ground and several other buildings in the process of being redeveloped.
One of the first to be transformed was the pre-existing Nelson House, which underwent a £3 million upgrade courtesy of Unite Students…  A single room here goes for just over £5,000 per academic year, or £125 per week, which might sound reasonable enough given its central location but other student accommodation costs a lot more.
St Lawrence House, currently under development by Prime Student Living, is set to open its doors to undergraduates in September 2015. The description of the facilities reads like a holiday brochure, with students being offered an on-site gym, 32” TVs and even their own printing and parcel distribution service. Despite claiming to offer tenants ‘affordable’ accommodation, prices start at £165 per week for a standard studio and rise to as much as £213 for an ‘extra large’ version. Meanwhile, Student Castle, who recently turned the old Pro Cathedral in Clifton into student rooms, charge even higher, with rates ranging from £139 per week all the way up to £269 for a two-level studio.
According to their website, many rooms are now booked out, but this has little bearing on the financial status of the vast majority of Bristol’s students. Tom Phipps, housing officer for the University of Bristol’s Student Union, said about these prices: “given that the basic maintenance loan is around £3,700 a year, these prices are exorbitant. Only a very small proportion of students here at Bristol will be able to afford these costs. This is a worrying trend as rents across the board are rising year on year making Bristol one of the most expensive places to be a student”.
Universities used to own and manage their own student accommodation. By the 1970-80s, Housing Associations frequently took over this role on behalf of many universities.
Crucially, Housing Associations were NON-PROFIT MAKING organisations but, sadly – largely thanks to changes in government regulation between 2010-13, today it’s the developers who have largely taken over… with the onus now very much on maximising profits for their shareholders.
It shouldn’t be like this!
PS: There MIGHT be an argument that there too many students attending university courses these days... but that's another story!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

amy


Went to see Asif Kapadia’s documentary film “Amy” at the Watershed last week (Kapadia also directed the impressive “Senna” film). Obviously, like with Senna, everyone knows how the story ends… but it was fascinating to see the impressive way archive images, home movies, concert videos, news footage and clips (together with interviews with the key people in Amy Winehouse’s life) had been stitched together. She died from alcohol poisoning in July 2011, aged just 27. She was an immense musical talent with a rich jazz voice to match her idols Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan (not to mention her song-writing abilities)… but with a self-destruct button.
The film showed the media in a pretty poor light (well, at least the tabloid press and swarms of paparazzi photographers – it felt very much like Princess Diana all over again). As Winehouse’s fame grew and as her drug-taking and drinking became notoriously more frequent, so the media swarmed around her like moths to light waiting for her to fall (literally)… it was sickening and uncomfortable to watch.
Although her paternal grandmother was a huge influence in her life, Winehouse was let down by her father (who walked out on the family when she was 9 – but not a unique occurrence!) and her ineffective mother - who, it seems, brought no discipline or structure to the struggling household.
Her father later returned (as her fame/earnings grew?) and became a strange sort of intrusive driving-force and ineffective burden (even though she adored him). It was her father who crucially advised Amy against going into rehab. It seems that she had a whole stream of people (including her equally troubled and charmless one-time husband – who appears to have introduced her to hard drugs) who were out of their depth in their attempts to manage her life, her well-being or her career. By the time she was just 21, it seems that her life was a downward spiral through drugs, with almost inevitable consequences… and so it proved.
It’s a moving and powerful film. Intimate and passionate… and heart-breaking in its inevitable end. Winehouse had an extraordinary personality, a stunning ear for jazz and a gloriously rich voice… but, sadly, it was her chaotic personal life that stole the headlines.
An impressive film.
PS: The media were quick to point out that Winehouse’s  death at the age of 27, meant that she was the latest “star” to join the infamous “27 Club” (alongside Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain)… and, like them, one can only wonder what musical creativity she might have produced if she’d had anything like a “normal” lifespan (but, actually, due to her chaotic lifestyle she produced just TWO albums).
But, you could say the same about other noted musicians… Schubert died aged 31 (but had written over 1,500 pieces); Purcell, 36 (wrote well over 600 pieces); or Mozart, 35 (again, composed over 600 works); or Chopin, 39 (over 230 works survive).

Thursday, August 06, 2015

richard long: “time+space”


Moira and I went along to the Arnolfini this morning to see Bristol-born Richard Long’s latest exhibition. Now I have to admit, the first time I experienced Long’s work at Tate St Ives in 2002, I was a little nonplussed. Although I was rather taken by his “walking texts”, from a graphic perspective (Gill Sans font!), they didn’t really feel like art to me.
Over the years, however, I’ve come to love his work - and somewhat strangely perhaps, in the circumstances, I PARTICULARLY like his textworks. Many of these originate from walks undertaken in the countryside around Bristol. Every walk is unique. They’re crystallised/summarised in a few phrases, together with details of mileage and timespan (and he always seems to cover very impressive daily distances – frequently 40 miles or so!).
The walks, like all his other work, represent the artist’s physical actions. He frequently uses mud taken from the banks of the Avon for his “paintings”. Nature is key to his work. Sometimes, in the constructed pieces, they might be fingerprints in the landscape. His walks are always undertaken alone; they could be seen as pilgrimages. His walks are limited by the capabilities of the human body and the body becomes the artist’s “natural material”. Long’s landscape sculptures are typically unplanned – created after a period of walking in the landscape.
For me, there’s a spiritual, poetic element within his work – Long has referred to “what you might call a state of grace” after walking close to nature. In many ways, the exhibition is a call for us all to look at our surroundings in a new way. Perhaps Long’s work is also a reminder, in our frenetic world of “instant access”, to pause and to consider, to experience and to feel.
It’s definitely an exhibition to take your time over. I really enjoyed it and I’ll certainly stop off on a regular basis to reflect on specific pieces over the coming months (it ends on 15 November).
You need to see if you can.
Photo: “Time+Space 2015” slate sculpture.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

salt of the earth...


I went to the Watershed yesterday to see a film. It was being shown in Cinema 2 – the tiny cinema with seats for just 45 people. ALL 45 seats were taken.
This was very unusual, especially for an afternoon performance (there have been occasions when there’s just been me and two others in attendance!).              
The film was “Salt of the Earth”, directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders. It was documentary featuring the work of Brazilian photographer Sabastiao Salgado (Juliano’s father) compiled over the past 40 years.
It was simply stunning.
The audience sat spellbound for 110 minutes in absolute silence.
The film consisted of well over 1,000 black+white photographs, with simple, sparse commentary – which frequently featured head-shots of Sabastiao talking about his work and his experiences.
The images were horrific (man’s inhumanity towards man is an under-statement), haunting and tragic… but, at the same time, very beautiful and poignant. They included shots from various of his photographic projects/assignments, including: the Serra Pelado mountain goldmine in Brazil, taken in the mid-1980s; through “Sahel” looking at the famine in Ethiopia, again in the 1980s; the plight of refugees from Rwanda and Yugoslavia during their respective troubles in the 1990s. Somehow, he was allowed into the lives of utterly miserable and desperate human beings. His photographs provided a message to the world.
The film also includes footage of Sabastiao’s aged father (Juliano’s grandfather) on his drought-stricken farm in Brazil – which had once been a thriving forest (before it was felled to help pay for the education and the survival(?) of his family). Having "seen into the heart of darkness" (as Wenders puts it in his occasionally narration) for so long, a burned-out Selgado returned to Brazil and, thanks to his wife’s initiative and drive, embarked on a plan of replanting and reviving the land that he dubbed "Instituto Terra." Not only did this effort help begin to bring the farm back to life, it would spread, first to other parts of Brazil and then worldwide.
After the stream of harrowing black+white images of people’s suffering at the hands of others, greed and the destruction of our planet, it’s completely fitting that the film should end on a hugely-uplifting, positive note.
Without a doubt, this is the best film I’ve seen this year.
Photo: Sabastiao Salgado standing in front of just a few of his photographs.
PS: If you’re not familiar with Salgado’s work, I suggest you just click “Salgado” on google images… you’ll be stunned (and also sadly appalled).  
PPS: You can catch the film at the Watershed, Bristol until Wednesday 5 August.