Thursday, March 15, 2018

you were never really here…

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Watershed to see Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” (Ramsay was the director of the acclaimed “We Need Talk About Kevin”).
Oh. My. Goodness (think: blood, guns and ball-peen hammers!).
Joaquin Phoenix (Joe) is a hired gun with a reputation for brutality – he’s ex-military and specialises in retrieving lost children. His task is to track down the teenage daughter (Nina, played by Ekaterina Samsonov) of a politician; she’s has been abducted, drugged and sold off into sexual slavery.
Joe himself is a shattered, fragile man. A combat-shocked veteran, he’s haunted by his past – his abusive, violent father… and the film is peppered with flashbacks and horrors from his past. Suicide never feels far away (plastic bag over head; dagger blade in mouth; looking at jumping from bridges; drowning – you get the picture!). But he also has obligations: caring for his aged mother and an apparent moral crusade to rescue Nina from her nightmare existence.
The soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood is excellent – and absolutely right for the film.

Even though the film only lasts for 90 minutes, it’s still pretty overwhelming. At times, it’s dream-like, at times it's surreal and disorientating… and exhausting.
Phoenix’s performance is spell-binding (you wouldn’t want to confront him in ANY way!).
On the face of it (ie. with all the blood and bodies), this really isn’t my kind of film… and yet, I was completely captivated by it.
I think you should see it – you might be pleasantly surprised (ok, well perhaps ‘pleasant’ might be the wrong word!).
PS: The film has very little dialogue, but (and you’re going to think these are merely the ramblings of a slightly-deaf, aged codger!) I actually found that the little there was was virtually incoherent. I definitely needed sub-titles!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

march 2018 books…

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Alexander McCall Smith): I think I started reading this book about ten years ago, but didn’t get very far with it at the time. (As you probably already knew) Precious Ramotswe sets up a detective agency in a small Botswanan town (the only lady private detective in the country) with the proceeds of the sale of her father’s cattle and duly enters the mysterious world of wayward daughters, missing husbands, curious conmen and the like. Miss Marple she is not… but I found it all delightfully different: gentle and even joyful in Ramotswe’s attitudes and her approach to life, people and circumstances. Beautifully written and a rare pleasure.
Six Weeks (John Lewis-Stempel): This is a brilliantly-researched, powerful book about young officers in WW1 who, as the book’s title suggests, had an average six-week life expectancy on the front line. These very young officers were invariably public school-educated (or occasionally from grammar schools). I found myself feeling quite prejudiced against this world of privilege and class whilst reading the book… but ultimately had to acknowledge that, with a need to form a huge army from scratch, this was probably the only practical option. Nevertheless, comments such as these from Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Hamilton (written in 1874) still rankled: “The soldier in his hour of need and danger will ever be more ready to follow the officer and gentleman whom education, position in life, and accident of birth point out to be his natural leader… than the man who, by dint of study and brain work, has raised himself (much to his own credit, certainly) from the plough or anvil”. But, having said this, Lewis-Stepel’s book is quite brilliant – containing, as it does, numerous, poignant extracts from letters written from the Western Front (often, they proved to have been the last words written by these soldiers before their deaths) - and skilfully conveys some of the harrowing, unimaginable reality of life in the trenches and all its horror and its dignity (and sometimes its humour, despite everything). A memorable book which provided further insight into the bleak experiences my grandfather Frank went through on the Somme and elsewhere.   
note: Somewhat strangely, the book also reminded me of my own experience as a working class, grammar school boy in the early 1960s. The school had its own Service Corps - complete with shooting bunker/mini-firing range(?) and armoury - which was taken VERY seriously (I well remember one of the ‘old’ teachers dressed in his full Army uniform riding a white horse on the Corps Annual Parade day!). I was in the ‘Remove’ stream at school - fast-tracking boys to sit O-Levels in 4 years instead of 5 - and the school clearly saw us as potential officers of the Corps. Given this background, you can imagine their utter disbelief when only a couple of boys out of the entire class indicated that they wanted to join the Corps. The school hierarchy was horrified by our actions (but, hey man, this was the swinging 60s!)… the powers-that-be even came to lecture us about our ‘duty and obligation to the school’. Even so, we dug in our heels and resisted!
The Full Cupboard Of Life (Alexander McCall Smith): Another book about the life of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency… and, once again, I found reading it a hugely pleasurable experience – gentle, kind, funny and beautifully written.
Inside The Wave (Helen Dunmore): Helen Dunmore died last year, aged 65. This book of poems is her final collection… they’re concerned with the borderline between the living and the dead. They relate to her interest in landscape and the sea but, crucially, about her personal experience of dying (she knew she was dying of cancer)… “To be alive is to be inside the wave, always travelling until it breaks and is gone”. I found them both eloquent and moving (there’s something rather powerful about poets writing in the knowledge that there life is coming to an end – although he’s still alive, but ailing, Clive James’s “Sentenced To Life” comes to mind). A lovely book that I’ll re-visit on a regular basis. Dunmore and I shared two connections: living in Bristol and loving St Ives. This short interview with her children is rather nice.   
Weather: A Very Short Introduction (Storm Dunlop): I originally thought that any book that describes itself as a “very short introduction” to a subject implied that it would brief, but also relatively straightforward. I was wrong… this book is FULL of complex information! I ended up feeling hugely inadequate intellectually. Typically, I’d read a page full of complicated terminology (which I didn’t really understand), only to be told that “obviously, this is just a very simplified explanation”! And all this coming from an author by the name of Storm Dunlop – anyone called “Storm” who writes a book about the weather doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously! Having said that, I feel sure that I’ll be consulting the book at various times over the coming years (Dunlop obviously knows his stuff!) and, maybe, it’ll all start to make complete sense?

Saturday, March 10, 2018


My friend Charlotte posted a recent link about this ‘challenge’. Essentially, it involved sketching 100 people between Monday-Friday 5-9 March… anything goes: quick scribbles to more detailed drawings; any medium; ideally, drawn ‘out on location’, but copying from postcards/photos is fine too.
So, I decided to give it a go.
From the outset (and given the time constraints, not to mention other stuff I needed to be working on), I knew it meant that my own sketches would be not much more than very rapid caricatures. In fact, I experimented in the Watershed bar one lunchtime and soon realised that my offerings needed to be limited to one-minute sketches (literally).
In order to keep things simple, I gave myself some specific ‘rules’, namely:
1.    7x4.5cm ‘picture frames’ (ten per A4 sketchbook page x 10 pages).
2.    The sketches would be very simple, ink LINE drawings only – no shading or black infilling.
3.    On completion, I would ‘colour’ (with watercolour markers) backgrounds to each sketch (limited to just three colours: red, yellow and blue).
4.    Every sketch I produced would be included in the final 100 images – NO editing or corrections allowed!

Most of the other people participating would no doubt have been entering their respective offerings on Instagram: #OneWeek100People2018 (for some reason, I can no longer update my Instagram account via my laptop… so I abandoned Instagram a few months ago).
For me, I decided that I would simply post a SINGLE image, incorporating all 100 scribbles, on my One Day Like This blog and also this blog.
The resulting sketches were hardly inspiring art(!), but I did enjoy the process AND the challenge. The vast majority of my images were indeed produced ‘on location’… most of them are VERY ordinary, lots are absolute rubbish, but perhaps a handful are quite good (well, I like them anyway). Lots simply look like pretty awful cartoon characters!
For my taste, I ended up concluding that ‘keeping it simple’ was the key.
If I did it again, I’d probably do things very differently… I don’t think the three-colour backgrounds worked very well… and my insistence on drawing ‘frames’ for every image ended up making them look a bit like those old cigarette cards (you’re probably MUCH too young!). Although restricting my sketches to very small frames simplified (and therefore speeded up) the ‘100 people’ challenge, I also think it would have been good to vary the style, size and medium (and not just heads)… Having said that, the use of ‘frames’ (as opposed to lots of random scribbles covering pages of my sketchbook) made it easier to come up with very sparse, graphic images – perhaps I should have concentrating on producing more of these?
Anyway, I’ll be fascinated to see what work other people end up producing.
PS: You'll need to click on the image to enlarge it... but it'll probably be a little blurred!

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

I would walk 1,000 miles…

You probably remember The Proclaimers “I’m Gonna Be/500 miles” song (“But I would walk 500 miles/ And I would walk 500 more/ Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles…”)?
Well, when I had a health scare last April, my consultant asked me what exercise I did. I responded by saying I walked every day. “How far?” he asked. “I’m not sure, but probably something like 3 miles a day” I replied.
Actually, I realised that I didn’t actually know how far I walked on a daily basis, so decided to make a spreadsheet (yes, I know!) to monitor things. I don’t use a fitbit app or a step monitor, I simply plot my basic routes via Google maps – so I think the results provide a fairly conservative figure for the distance I actually do cover on a daily basis. I certainly didn’t change my walking habits, I simply made a note of how far I’d walked.
Well, it’s been interesting just monitoring my daily walking routines and, in fact, it turns out that, on average, I DO walk just over three miles a day.
Indeed, in the 46 weeks since I started my walking spreadsheet, I’ve covered 1,000 miles (that’s, on average, some 22 miles a week).
In other words, since 22 April 2017, I’ve walked the equivalent (according to Google) of John O’Groats to Lands End (874 miles) and then back beyond Exeter!!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

the shape of water...

Moira and I went to the Watershed again this afternoon… this time to see Guillermo Del Toro’s much-acclaimed “The Shape of Water” (it’s received ‘quite a few’ Oscar nominations!), featuring the extraordinary Sally Hawkins (as Eliza – an orphaned, mute, isolated woman who’s a cleaner working in a secret US government facility in 1962), plus Doug Jones (as a brilliant marine creature), Michael Shannon (Strickland - the cruel research head) and Richard Jenkins (Giles - shares a sort of father+daughter bond with Eliza)… amongst a very talented cast.
So, the facility receives a ‘creature’ in a tank, which has been captured from a South American river by Strickland… and the US government wants to exploit the creature for possible advantages in the Space Race.
Meanwhile, Eliza accidentally discovers that the creature is a humanoid amphibian and begins visiting the creature in secret, forming a close bond with it… which slowly turns to love.
Essentially, the film is a deliciously weird, extraordinary fairytale-cum-romantic thriller… Daughter Ruth described the film as being something of a ‘dark “Amelie”’… and I think this is a pretty good description (although, perhaps not quite in the ‘Amelie’ league for me, personally – perhaps my very favourite film of all time!). Like ‘Amelie’, the soundtrack is also an important feature within the film (eg. Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You”), as do various Hollywood film references/extracts.
It’s certainly ONE of the best films I’ve seen this year but, perhaps fairytales are not quite my out-and-out cup of tea? Nevertheless, it's very beautiful and has to be one of those films you just HAVE to see.
PS: And if you thought Paddington Bear could make a mess in a bathroom, just wait until you see this!
PPS: But the film also highlights the awful homophobic, sexist and racist views adopted by many people in the US (and elsewhere) in the early 1960s. The fact that they come across as hugely shocking probably says much about how far we come since that time.

Friday, February 23, 2018

lady bird…

Moira and I went to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”. It’s a film about adolescence set in west coast America in the early 2000s. Specifically, it’s about the relationship between mothers and daughters.
Christine (or “Lady Bird” as she prefers to call herself), brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan, is an artistically inclined 17 year-old in her last year a Catholic school with has dreams of a different life of cosmopolitan culture, Ivy League universities on the East Coast and her own self-importance (of course!). Her mother Marion, equally brilliantly played by Laurie Metcalf, is a nurse working double shifts to keep her family afloat (her husband’s just lost his job).
So, confused, precocious teenager with lofty aspirations, falling in and out of love, trying to balance friendship and popularity (and frequently failing)… and trying to be true to herself. Mother attempting to manage her daughter’s expectations and, annoyingly/frustratingly, regularly ‘getting it wrong’ (telling Lady Bird that she has ideas above her station, telling her how expensive it’s been to raise her… and, of course, criticising her lack of tidiness and her dress sense etc etc).
You get the general idea…
Lots of the film’s other characters are excellent too – I particularly liked ‘best friend’ Julie (played by Beanie Feldstein)… and I came away feeling that I needed to watch the film again in order to pick up all the nuances and to appreciate some of the ‘secondary’ performances and characters a little more.
It’s a film about growing up, about relationships and about the things that shape our lives… about how teenagers perhaps can’t imagine the emotional lives of their parents and about the difficulties and sense of loss for some parents when their children leave home.   
I thought it was a really lovely, frequently funny, sometimes sad (often predictably uncomfortable), very enjoyable, coming of age film… you need to see it.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

february 2018 books…

The Labours Of Hercules (Agatha Christie): First published 1947 (my copy: 1958)… another Hercule Poirot book. Poirot decides to undertake twelve more cases before he retires… choosing each one because of its resemblance to one of the twelve labours of Hercules – his mythological namesake (but he doesn’t end up dying wearing a poisoned shirt!). Twelve very clever short stories of detection and logic.
Fludd (Hilary Mantel): Set in the mid-1950s, in a village on the edge of some northern moorland and where the Roman Catholic Church holds sway against a dismal backdrop of ancient local feuds and general disillusionment. The village is presided over by a Catholic priest, who seems to have lost his faith in God while keeping to his horrified belief in the devil, and an appalling mother superior of the local convent. Into this bleak world comes the curate Fludd – apparently sent by the local bishop – who turns out to be a spiritual alchemist who can free anyone who will listen with the influence of his magical (not particularly holy!) powers. Enjoyable, funny, moralistic and compassionate.
(This note appears at the front of the book: “The real Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, scholar and alchemist. In alchemy everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical”).
Alexander Pope (Edith Sitwell): First published 1930 (my copy: 1948). Before reading this biography, I knew very little about Pope (1688-1744) – apart from knowing he was poet (“The Rape of the Lock”). Her introduction to the book is telling. She clearly worshipped Pope and was ruthlessly disparaging of his many critics, for example: “We must remember when reading certain of the biographies and certain criticisms of Pope’s life and of his work, that the authors were schoolmasters and scholars, not poets, and that no matter how great their learning and how deep-rooted their kindness, they could scarcely be expected to understand that to this man, who was one of the greatest poets England has produced, whose sense of texture in poetry was so excessively delicate that it has never been surpassed, and, I think, has scarcely been equalled, to this fine and sensitive artist, inferior poetry and clumsy texture were an agony, and must have had almost the effect of physical rupture”. As you might have gathered, she was a poet! Frankly, once I’d read her introduction, I realised that it was highly unlikely that the biography of her hero could ever be regarded as unbiased… and so it proved. Nevertheless, an interesting insight into the life and times/work of the poet (and his biographer!) about whom I knew so little. From the age of 12, he suffered numerous health problems, such as Pott's disease (a form of tuberculosis that affects the bone), which deformed his body and stunted his growth, leaving him with a severe hunchback (he was only 4’6” in height) and his tuberculosis infection caused other health problems including respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes, and abdominal pain. At times, 18th century society life seems to have been all about protracted quarrels, snide remarks, jealousy… and publishing correspondence (often altered to suit one party against another). Social media ‘bitching’ and ‘fake news’ are clearly nothing new!
Holy Disorders (Edmund Crispin): First published 1946 (my copy: 1958). The third Crispin crime novel I’ve read (I think)… predictably clever, predictably absurd and, of course, typical of 1930s/40s crime novels - but it provided agreeable, ‘light’ reading material for my train journey. The back cover featured a photograph of the author in a typical pose of its time, with the head suitably framed by the ‘delicate’ fingers of one hand… except that these fingers also held a smouldering cigarette, just a couple of inches from his face. All rather ludicrous!
Where Poppies Blow (John Lewis-Stempel): This is a book about the British soldier, nature and the Great War. At first, I felt the writer was romanticising war and how soldiers (particularly officers) spent much of their time bird-watching, fishing and taking strolls in the countryside. But, thankfully, I was wrong… and Lewis-Stempel goes to great lengths to provide the flip-side to this ‘life’ – including harrowing descriptions of rat-infested trenches, lice, flies, disease and death. It’s very well written and brilliantly researched (using correspondence from soldiers). As my grandfather Frank was a ‘driver’ with the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) on the Somme from 1914 onwards (ie. horse driver – I think each driver was responsible for a pair of horses), I was particularly interested in this extract: “NCOs and men working in transport or with the artillery also had riding lessons, invariably of the intensive type, condensed into a week, as Sargeant George Thompson recalled: ‘All the drivers were taken to 50th Division RFA and went through a week’s training to learn both to ride and to drive. They gave us some stick, I can tell you. First came riding bareback and then with saddles on : we were sore for days’”. Living in Birmingham, as he did, I suspect that the war was Frank’s first encounter with horses? An excellent book which provides a new perspective on WW1.