Sunday, July 24, 2016

two days in luton…

Moira and I have just returned home after spending a couple of very enjoyable days staying with our lovely Christine and Nick in Luton. We’ve been friends for nearly forty years (blimey!)(ironically, that’s about the time of Lorraine Chase’s Luton Airport/Campari advert… and, if you don’t know what I’m on about, then you’re too young!) – since our days when we lived just down the road from each other in Percy Street, Oxford.
They’ve fairly recently moved to Luton (where Nick is vicar in a parish which includes Luton Airport, a Vauxhall  Motors’ plant, thousands of houses - built mainly in the 1960s, two villages and large expanses of rather lovely open countryside – where there are plans to build hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new homes!).
Well, we had a lovely time catching up on our respective family news, future plans and reminiscing about our time living in East Oxford. We also enjoyed some beautiful countryside (within walking distance of the vicarage) and a village pub lunch… and we even found time for some culture (and more countryside and more food!) when we went to see Bernard Shaw’s play “You Never Can Tell” (first performed in 1899) in the grounds of “Shaw’s Corner” (his home for some 44 years and now a National Trust property). We took chairs, blankets and a picnic (and managed to arrive in time to grab a place in the front row!) and enjoyed a very pleasant, warm, theatrical evening* – with only occasional dialogue drowned out by passing aircraft! 
A lovely couple of days with very lovely friends.
Photos: picnicking in the front row; Shaw’s Corner; and random photo from our woodland walk.
Note*: we were all agreed that Shaw’s play was hardly inspiring stuff (but very enjoyable nonetheless)… it felt a little like the Emperor’s new clothes: although Shaw was an acclaimed playwright (amongst other things), we all found the plot somewhat tedious and the acting/characterisation somewhat exaggerated and overdone. My brother Alan sent me this link to a Monty Python sketch featuring Shaw, Whistler and Oscar Wilde (some 3mins in)… and, yes, it DID feel a little like it!!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

labour pains…

I’m very aware that, ever since the Brexit result, I’ve been moaning (some would say “ranting”!) about most things to do with political in this country.
So, I just wanted to say sorry!
But (and you just KNEW there would be a “but” didn’t you!), before I offer my resignation, I thought I’d give you my thoughts on the Labour Party (note: I’m actually a member of the Green Party).
For what it’s worth, I thought that, under Miliband’s leadership, the Labour Party’s performance in Opposition (especially given what a pig’s ear the Tories were making of things) was simply awful. Indeed, after the 2015 General Election, I felt that the Labour Party would be out of government until AT LEAST 2025.
The Conservative Party (following the farce of the EU Referendum) has already got itself a new Prime Minister but, meanwhile, as far as the rest of the country is concerned (and at a time when it SHOULD be underlining the mess that the government’s got us all into), the Labour Party has been doing its best to demonstrate its incompetence by scoring SO many own goals that it might well end up destroying itself (not even the most the passionate Tory strategist could have dreamed of such a brilliant campaign strategy)…

I like Jeremy Corbyn as a bloke… but I don’t happen to believe that he will be able to win support from the rest of the country to gain victory at the next General Election (to date, in my opinion, his “performance” in parliament as Leader of the Opposition has been poor).
Clearly, there are lots of people who disagree with me.
However, I’m not sure I agree with the current leadership challenges… and strongly suspect that, if there is an election, Corbyn will win again… the Labour Party will remain in tatters and the government will be rubbing their hands once again. 
What would happen to the Labour Party if Corbyn was re-elected party leader? Would a new breakaway party emerge in protest? What would they call it? “Real Labour” (you couldn’t make up these things!)?
Interestingly(?), I listened a constitutional expert on Radio 4’s “Today In Parliament” on Friday evening (you might still be able to catch it on iPlayer: 15/7/16 at 11.30pm) who indicated that a) the Official Opposition is the largest party in the House of Commons that is not in government so, if the Labour Party were to split into two “pieces”, there would then be a Labour Party and a breakaway group of MPs and b) if the breakaway group had most MPs (and more than the SNP’s 56), then it would count as the largest party and become the Official Opposition (the Speaker might ultimately be asked to make a ruling, if it is disputed).
I simply hope (please!) that all the opposition parties get their acts together - so that they provide a PROPER opposition to this government.
Right, that’s it… I’ll try to be quiet from now on (honest... probably).

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

june-july 2016 books…

More book stuff:
Mystery In White (J Jefferson Farjeon): I admit that reading a crime novel set at Christmas (and amid heavy snowfall and blizzards) did seem slightly surreal in June! First published in 1937, this book (out of print since the 1930s) was subsequently republished by the British Library in 2014. In his day, Farjeon was a highly acclaimed author and, after reading this novel, I can see why. It’s a clever, almost creepy, mystery… in which a group of travellers (whose train becomes trapped by heavy snowdrifts) take shelter in a country house – where fires have been lit and the table laid for tea, but no one is at home. As I say, creepy! A good read.
The Walker’s Guide To Outdoor Clues And Signs (Tristan Gooley): Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating book – absolutely full of information and insights for walkers/outdoor-lovers. However, I REALLY didn’t take to Gooley at all! He’s obviously extremely knowledgeable about his subject, but I would hate to accompany him on a walk or attend one of his courses. I could imagine Gooley being critical of the group for not spotting some tiny, very particular, obscure (and, frankly, boring!) detail that had only recently occurred to him… and everyone on the course just looking at each other and thinking: “he’s off his head”! It’s a brilliant reference book though and one that I’ll very much enjoy using over the coming years - but I’d definitely prefer to avoid meeting him in person (he seems like a bit of anorak... to put it mildly!)!
All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (Maya Angelou): Angelou has written her autobiography in seven volumes. This is book five - somewhat ridiculously, the others I’ve read are books one and six! As I’ve said before, I’ve been a big fan of hers over the years (and can almost hear her voice as I read her books). This one deals with her time in Ghana (she emigrated there in 1962, before returning to the USA three years later).
It’s essentially about Angelou exploring her African and African-American identities and her history and character. She focuses on becoming assimilated in African culture, but ends up finding this unattainable. It’s another fascinating book – her story is beautifully told and full of all the rich insights, colour and humour I associate with Angelou.
Sheila (Robert Wainwright): I enjoy biographies and picked up this book from the £3 Bookshop. I’m also fascinated by what was happening in this country in the 1920s – in terms of art, society, fashion, politics and the like - so, this book appealed on a number of fronts. It’s about Sheila Chisholm, born in Australia in 1895, given the best education given to girls at the time and then, in 1914, brought to London by her mother in order to complete her education by attending “the Season”. Wainwright describes Sheila Chisholm as “vivacious, confident and striking” and she clearly “blazed a trail through London society”, amassing friendships which ran the gamut from Buckingham Palace and Downing Street to Hollywood and the Kennedys. She married a Scottish lord, an English baronet and a Russian prince… and attracted a string of distinguished suitors (you get the general idea!). Frankly, I’d never previously heard of the woman and, on the face of it, reading about high society, privileged birthright, the cavorting idle rich and the ruling classes is hardly my idea of fun(!)… and yet the book DID make compelling and fascinating reading.
The Santa Klaus Murder (Mavis Doriel Hay): Yes, ridiculously, this is the second Christmas crime novel I’ve read this summer (I blame Moira!). Like the earlier book, this was also published in the 1930s (1935) – the golden age of British crime fiction according to the book’s blurb(?). It’s a very clever murder mystery set in a country house and involving an aristocratic setting, a dead earl and lots of red herrings. I liked the novel’s format of chapters written by a handful of the book’s characters (the Chief Constable being the major contributor) as the investigation unfolded. Well-conceived and well-executed (both the book and the murder!).

Sunday, July 10, 2016

brown willy…

I went along to the Watershed (with Hannah and Felix) this afternoon to see a special screening of a rather special film, called Brown Willy (named after the hill in Cornwall – the highest point on Bodmin Moor)… which included a Q+A session with the film’s director, Brett Harvey, its producer/one of its two actors (Pete), Simon Harvey, and its cinematographer, Adam Laity… plus a live performance by Three Cane Whale (as you might already know, I’ve become one of their groupies!), who provided the musical backdrop to the film.
It was shot (quite brilliantly to my mind) in black+white on Bodmin Moor in just 10 days and on an absolutely minimum budget. The film’s only two characters (Michael and Pete) are getting together for a weekend on the Moor. Michael (played by Ben Dyson) is about to get married and the weekend takes the form of an alternative stag do. Michael and Pete (both 40 year-olds) have known each other since childhood, but have grown apart over recent years and don’t talk as often as they used to. Michael is a rather prim, uptight character while Pete doesn’t really seem to have grown up.
They end up getting drunk, then high… then lost on the Moor (as you do).
Moira had decided, having seen the Watershed’s blurb, that the film wasn’t for her (she thought it sounded a bit like an English version of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” – and, in a way, she was right). Despite the film’s somewhat ludicrous premise (given Michael’s prim, organised nature – SURELY, he’d have taken a map and a compass on his trip?)(and, whilst you could get lost on Dartmoor, I suspect it’s rather harder to do so on Bodmin Moor!), it’s an entertaining, funny and, at times, quite poignant film. The cinematography is simply stunning (it certainly reminded me of my time on Dartmoor helping to train young people for Ten Tors) and the music is quite, quite brilliant (I might be slightly prejudiced here?). Interestingly, director Bret Harvey was already familiar with Three Cane Whale’s music and, having obtained their permission to use some of it for the film, played it as the crew’s constant “musical travelling companion” throughout its filming – which resulted in the film being edited to suit the music rather than the other way around… and it works perfectly.
If you get the chance to see this film (it’s not on general release), then you should definitely take it. It’s a charming film.
Photo: Three Cane Whale performing after the Q+A session.

 

Friday, July 01, 2016

notes on blindness

Moira+I went along to the Watershed (where else?) this afternoon to see Pete Middleton’s/James Spinney’s remarkable film “Notes on Blindness”. In 1983 (aged 45), after years of failing sight, theologian John Hull became completely blind. Understandably, he struggled to come to terms with the finality of his condition – he described himself as being stuck, “a sighted person who couldn’t see”. He went through an initial grieving process, before deciding that he had to record his thoughts about blindness on tape (which he did for the rest of the decade) "because if I didn't understand it, it would defeat me".
These numerous tapes (along with interviews with John and his wife Marilyn) form the basis of the film… with actors (excellent Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby) lip-synching the dialogue.
It’s a moving and profound film (certainly not sugary or over-romanticised)… about coping and adapting, about becoming more aware, about the need for identifiable structure and routine, about the importance of support (from family, friends and colleagues), and about the importance of the familiarity of surroundings.
But, as you might imagine, it’s also a film about huge regrets… about not being able to see his five children (some of whom he’d never seen) and his wife, about not being able to access information, and about losing his visual memory (“longing for optic stimulation”). For me, I would have like to have heard more about how Marilyn adjusted to John’s total blindness…
During the course of the film, I found myself reflecting on the magical importance of ALL our senses - sight, sound, taste, touch and smell being the five traditional recognised senses… and how much we simply take them for granted… a magical sunrise or sunset; the laughter of children; Italian ice cream; an embrace from loved-one; new-mown grass… (the list could go on for several pages!).

Thanks to the tapes and his philosophical approach, you sense that Hull (who died in July 2015) was able to come to terms with his blindness… but one can only imagine how difficult the journey was and, if the circumstances were reversed, how we might cope in Hull’s situation.
Definitely a film I think you should see.
Losing sight, but gaining vision perhaps?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

june 2016 books…

More book stuff:
Notes From A Small Island (Bill Bryson): I first read this book 20 years ago (I remember enjoying it but, frankly, couldn’t remember any significant details). After living here for nearly 20 years, Bryson decided to take a jaunt around the UK prior to returning to the USA with his family… and this is the subject of the book. Bryson is opinionated, sometimes a little boring, frequently rude… and consistently very funny. A light, affectionate and enjoyable book… perfect holiday reading material.
Stet (Diana Athill): For nearly five decades, Athill acted as editor for some of the most celebrated writers in the English language. This is the second Athill book I’ve read (“After A Funeral” was the first) and I found this elegant, beautifully-written and extraordinary memoir even better. The first half provides an insight into her profession and her own career journey, whilst the second part focuses on particular writers with whom she has worked (eg. VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Brian Moore).
The Forbidden Zone (Mary Borden): This is a gem of a little book (first published in 1929). Borden, born in Chicago, set up a hospital unit on the Western Front for French soldiers in WW1 and worked as a nurse there for four years. I’d expected the book to be something of a documented account of her time there and, whilst it certainly conveyed the terror, pain and suffering of the war, her memories and impressions are written in a wonderful, almost poetic, manner which is both powerful and intimate.
Liza Of Lambeth (W Somerset Maugham): I like Maugham as a writer. This short novel, first published in 1897, was his first book and it tells the story of the trials and tribulations of an 18 year-old girl (Liza) living in Lambeth, London (set some 40 years earlier). It paints a convincing picture of working-class life in degenerative slum conditions – although with a fair sense of humour too. I have to say that I found the dialogue rather cumbersome at times (the book’s full of sentences such as: “Wot ‘as ‘e got the needle abaht?”…) - but I suppose this was unavoidable. The book apparently “made a stir” when it was first published and helped launch on his writing career.
The Soulwater Pool (Claire Williamson): I went to a “Literary Evening” at St John on the Wall, Bristol recently and Claire Williamson (a friend of our daughter Ruth, as it turns out) was one of the authors/poets reading their work. This is a short book (published in 2008) explores a domestic drama unfolding over two tense days. It features five characters and is set out in short, poetic reflections (often just a single page long) – each given a heading in the form of the named character and their location (eg.”Ella: In the Park”). It’s a surprising and subtle book – enhanced by the starkness of its rather beautiful format. Excellent.   

Friday, June 10, 2016

when marnie was there

I’m a self-confessed Studio Ghibli “nut” and so I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see the studio’s 2014 film “When Marnie Was There” (directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi – and the last film before the studio's self-imposed hiatus following the retirement of its founder Hayao Miyazaki). There were just twelve of us in the audience (I counted!) – interestingly, 8 men and 4 women… and only 4 of us could be classed as “oldies”!
The film is based on Joan Robinson’s 1967 book (of the same name) – with the location being shifted from Norfolk to a Japanese coastal town. The principal character, Anna, is a lonely, troubled foster child who’s been sent to stay with relatives. She becomes fascinated by an apparently deserted mansion… where she befriends a mysterious, western blond girl of her own age. There’s a strange sense of déjà-vu about the mansion…
I’m not saying any more – apart from the fact that the two women in front of me were drying their eyes at the end!
It’s another beautiful Studio Ghibli film – a perfect story ripe for adaptation and, as usual, with stunning animation (the closing credits must list about 100 animators!).
If you love Studio Ghibli – or are prepared to be converted(!) – this film is for you!