Monday, February 16, 2015

february 2015 books


More book stuff:
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg): This is a strange book. I picked it up under the “Classics” section of the £3 book shop and decided to give it a go. Set in Scotland at the beginning of the 18th century, it was first published anonymously in 1824, as if it were the presentation of a found document from the previous century offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed author. Many of the events of the novel are narrated twice; first by the 'editor', who gives his account of the facts as he understands them to be, and then in the words of the 'sinner' himself.
It’s been described as a “study of religious fanaticism through its deeply critical portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination” – a mix of madness, the supernatural, and religious intolerance! Despite the book’s fictitious nature, it does provide a haunting reminder of the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century or, indeed, the radical Islamist group, the Islamic State (IS) of today in huge expanses of eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq.
A Delicate Truth (John Le Carre): This is our next Book Group book. I think it’s only the second Le Carre novel I’ve read. Amongst other things, this book is about the shadowy, apparently ever-expanding world of non-government insiders from banking, industry and commerce who have influence within the UK government. It might be fiction, but you get a firm sense of reality when it comes to descriptions of mandarins within the Foreign Office and dealings with influential, but unethical, private companies – especially those with interests in the arms trade. Morality (or lack of it) and conscience is at the heart of this novel - and a firm sense that politicians are betraying all of us. I enjoyed it, despite being left with a feeling that it was very formulaic in nature and simply the last of Le Carre’s production line (which is probably very unfair!). 
Lucia’s Progress (EF Benson): My fifth Benson “Mapp+Lucia” book (written in the 1920s and set in Rye). Beautifully observed. Funny... and all the other things I’ve written about the previous books in the series. Very pleasurable reading.  
Italian Ways (Tim Parks): Writer Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived in Italy for the past 30 years. This is a book about Italy, about Italians and about Italian railways. I’ve not a travel book… and, yet, perhaps it is. More than anything, it’s a charming, really rather lovely, gentle, amusing book about Italian ways… from the very good and the appalling bad barmen serving coffee in Milan station to the unfathomable depths of railway timetables (and trains) in Sicily. I loved it.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Benedicta Ward): This is a book of sayings of fourth century ascetics who fled to the desert to live out their Christian faith… and who were sought out by admirers for counsel. It’s a remarkable book about the desert fathers’ vision, courage, endurance and integrity. But, at times, it’s also completely bizarre and contains impenetrable (for me) and sometimes completely nonsensical (again for me!) snippets of “wisdom”. One of those books I’ll continue to dip into over the coming years.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

palestine+israel...


Last night, Moira+I went to listen to Lindsey Sharpe, from Ecumenical Accompaniment to Programme in Palestine+Israel (EAPPI). She talked about her experiences as one of EAPPI’s “ecumenical accompaniers” (EAs) in Jerusalem. EAPPI is a programme coordinated by the World Council of Churches founded in response to a call from the local Heads of Churches in Jerusalem that brings internationals to the West Bank. Since 2002, over 1,500 volunteers have worked in the West Bank for 3 months as EAs. EPPI’s mission is to witness life under occupation, engage with local Palestinians and Israelis pursuing a just peace, to change the international community’s involvement in the conflict, urging them to act against injustice in the region.
As we all know, this “peace process” has been (and continues to be) a long, frustrating, ugly business.
In 1993, with the Oslo Peace Accords, there was hope and engagement between Israel and the Palestinians. More than 20 years on, peace in the Middle East seems more remote than ever. One of the main reasons is undoubtedly Israel’s incessant settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In recent years, this policy has been preventing
the resumption of meaningful peace negotiations. But its negative impact goes much further: it threatens the viability of the two-state solution and therefore the very feasibility of peace.
The facts are frightening (taken from Trading Away Peace: How Europe helps sustain illegal Israeli settlements”, published in 2012):
1. There are now more than 500,000 Israeli settlers living in over 200 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The settler population has more than doubled since the conclusion of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, which were intended to provide a framework for ending the occupation.
2. The settler population is growing at a much faster rate (an average of 5.3% annually over the last decade) than the Israeli population as a whole (1.8%). Some of the largest settlements, such as Ma’ale Adummim, Ariel and Betar Illit are now sizable towns with tens of thousands of inhabitants.
3. During the past two years in particular, following the failure of US President Obama’s effort to convince the Israeli government to freeze settlement construction, settlement growth has markedly accelerated. More than 16,000 new housing units have been announced or approved since October 2010.
4. Over the same period, Israeli authorities have stepped up demolitions of Palestinian homes, while violent attacks by settlers against Palestinians have also sharply increased.
5. More than 42% of West Bank land and the majority of water and natural resources have been seized from Palestinians and allocated to settlements.
6. Settlements and the related infrastructure, including new road networks and the separation barrier, have carved up Palestinian communities into disconnected enclaves with movement controlled by checkpoints. This “land grab”, that has no legitimate security justification, has dramatically reduced the space available for Palestinians to develop livelihoods and construct housing and infrastructure. At the same time, settlements have been integrated with Israel proper, blurring the internationally accepted pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank.
7. Through the establishment of settlements, Israel has created a discriminatory two-tier regime in the West Bank with two populations living separately in the same territory under two different systems of law. While settlers enjoy all the rights and benefits of Israeli citizens, Palestinians are subject to a system of Israeli military laws that deprives them of their fundamental rights.
It shouldn’t be like this.
Despite the fact that, for decades, the United Nations has condemned the Israeli Occupation on numerous occasions and despite the fact that politicians have frequently voiced their disapproval of Israel’s actions, world leaders (including past world leaders, like Tony Blair in his so-called “peace envoy” capacity!) continue to be unable to instigate change.
Again and again, UN resolutions have been disregarded or the US administration has vetoed security council resolutions to condemn Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Between 2000-2011 (I don’t have recent figures), the US has used its veto 10 times, nine of which involved backing the Israeli side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that there are violations and atrocities carried out by BOTH sides. I, like most people, just want an end to the injustice of occupation and a lasting, peaceful solution.
There MUST be a better way.
Photo: maps which show the loss of Palestinian land between 1946 and 2005 (and it’s still happening)... sorry for the poor quality.
PS: Lindsey Sharpe finished her talk by showing this clip from Palestinian poet, Rafeef Ziadah. I’d seen it before, but it IS quite special.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

isolde, lauren bradford+julia turner at the folk house...


Moira, Gareth, Alan+I went along to the Folk House last night to hear these three singer/songwriter/musicians. They performed both individually (well, Lauren+ Julia with their respective bands and Isolde with her loop station!) and as a trio of unaccompanied voices. All three sing quite beautifully and their a capella renditions were simply stunning, entertaining and often very funny (I particularly liked their song “Cheer Up Gordon” - dedicated to “all those who ride on the London Underground on a daily basis”! They’re threatening to sing and film it on the Tube – and post it on YouTube, obviously... if they do, it’ll become VERY popular, mark my words!). Two hours of excellent music – ALL written by themselves.
Three very talented musicians. One very enjoyable evening (and a pretty cheap one too – tickets were just £7).  
Photo: Lauren Bradford, Julia Turner+Isolde at the Folk House.

Friday, January 23, 2015

grit


I was given Martyn Bennett’s “Grit” album at the start of 2004 by my friend Jane Anderson. She told me that it was “something of an acquired taste, but I think you’ll love it”... or words to that effect!
Well, she was absolutely right and I have LOVED it ever since.
What I hadn’t appreciated at that time was that Bennett dying of cancer (he’d struggled with cancer throughout his adult life)... and, in fact, he died in January 2005, aged just 32. He’d been a gifted piper and, in 1986, he became the first traditional musician enrolled into classical conservatoire of the City of Edinburgh Music School. In “Grit”, his final, remarkable work, he somewhat controversially (understatement!) mixed Scottish bagpipe and fiddle music with techno beats... plus the voices of Scottish travellers from the 1950s. This might sound completely bizarre, but the end result is truly remarkable. Believe me!
The album’s title came from his illness: "Cancer is a piece of grit inside your soul which you can't get out, so you have to try and make something of it. But grit is also rock salt, an old medicine. I also see it as representative of cultures trying to survive."
Then this morning – completely out of the blue – I noticed an iPlayer link my good friend Joe Heap (of Towersey Festival fame etc etc) on facebook to a television programme on iPlayer (Celtic Connections: Opening Concert: Martyn Bennett’s “Grit”). Thank you, thank you, Joe!! Greg Lawson (a friend of Bennett’s and a notable musician in his own right) had put together his own arrangement of the album at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – featuring 80 musicians and singers.
The result is TRULY exhilarating.
It’s very difficult to find the “right” words to describe the concert... uplifting, stunningly beautiful, spiritual... moving (I cried!). Inevitably, the concert rendering is very different from Bennett’s studio version (in latter the years of his illness, he became unable to play instruments and had to resort to mixing old vinyl recordings in his studio in Mull), but this wonderful, passionate concert performance was something to behold.   
Clearly the audience thought it was pretty amazing too (the concert had been a sell-out as soon as tickets became available).
I just wish I could have been there.
PS: As you might have gathered, I REALLY think you need to see+listen to this concert on iPlayer! Watch it and be sure to turn up the volume!!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

january 2015 books


More book stuff:
Meetings With Remarkable Men (GI Gurdjieff): I first read this book in 1981 (although I have a feeling that I didn’t finish it). Gurdjieff was born near the Russian frontier with Persia in 1877. He trained as a priest and a phusician and then spent 20 years travelling in the remote regions of Central Asia (supporting himself throughout in a wide variety of trades), thinking, learning and absorbing ancient knowledge. This book is a strange mixture of traveller’s tales, myth, legend+autobiography and formed the basis of three books (this is the second) teaching his system of “knowledge”. He established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man near Paris in 1922. Despite the fact that I frequently found his observations were conveyed using something akin to Ronnie Corbett’s story-telling technique (ie. “Two Ronnies” sketches – with endless deviations and constant tangents!), I thought it was a fascinating book – if somewhat egotistical!
Fathomless Riches (Revd Richard Coles): I enjoy listening to Coles on Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” programme and Moira is a great twitter-follower of his(!). This is an unusual autobiography! Telling his story from his school days as head chorister, his time as a 1980’s rock star, his sexual awakening, drugs, broadcasting and, ultimately, being ordained in the Church of England. It’s a frank, honest and absorbing memoir – although I get a strange feeling (the book “ends” in 2005) that this is just the first in a series! In the book, I thought he came across as a rather vain individual who enjoyed being in the limelight and who seemed to pursue one fad after another (but perhaps I’m being a little unfair?). Not quite what you’d expect from a vicar perhaps(?)… although maybe he’s changed over the past 9 years or so.
A Journey (Tony Blair): I knew that, at some stage, I would read Blair’s 2010 autobiography (and couldn’t resist buying a new hardback copy for just £2!). I also knew that I’d be impressed (and even taken in by) his eloquence, ability to argue a case and his passion (in fact, I even scribbled a note to myself along these lines before I’d even started reading it, as a reminder… and also resolving that “it wouldn’t change my disdain that I now had for the man following the debacle of the Iraq bombing”!)(which I haven’t!). Well, I have now read the book (all 691 pages of it!). I have to say, I do just LOVE political biographies. It is an absolutely fascinating book – encompassing all my anticipated sentiments. As far as I can tell, it’s a very honest book – or is just me being taken in by the skill of successful politician? – and does provide a unique insight into the role and the required talents of a world leader. It was particularly absorbing reading his “take” on the Gordon Brown/Tony Blair Labour leadership battle (and “succession”). The book certainly took me back to that wonderful, joyous May morning in 1997 when Labour came into power after 13 years of Tory rule. There’s no doubt that Blair was (and still is?) a brilliantly talented politician and, with 7 years as a barrister behind him, was perfectly set for the role of Prime Minister. He clearly had/has an ability to think on his feet, absorb massive amounts of detail, to have “vision” and to articulate his thoughts supremely well. I think, in his early days as PM, he probably came across as a “man of the people” (and probably rightly so) but, over the course of his premiership, I think he became arrogant (yes, I know that all leaders probably need a little arrogance!) and even smug. For me, his style became too “presidential” and almost messianic in character… and his politics rather too “Tory” for my liking (or am I just being unfair?). I was also left with the overriding sense that anyone who has the ambition to be prime minister in this day and age of 24/7 media coverage, in a world of instant communication and, it seems, ever-increasing complexities… must be absolutely MAD! Whatever your politics, this is a totally absorbing, very well written and fascinating book.       
Brief Lives: EM Forster (Richard Canning): I came across this “short, authoritative” biography shortly after reading Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” – when I realised that I knew next to nothing about him (apart from some of his books). Strangely, Forster (1979-1970) had written his six novels by 1924 (drawing on a small body of experience, all over by his 30th birthday) and spent much of his later life writing literary reviews and short stories, travelling and broadcasting. He was homosexual – although only close friends were aware of this (he was desperately keen to keep this from his mother; his novel “Maurice”, a homosexual love story, was written in 1913-14, but not published until after his death) - and a humanist (President of Cambridge Humanists 1959-70). Canning’s short book providees an excellent summary of Forster’s life. My favourite quote from the book is an observation made in 1914, aged 35, when he lamented the intrusion of ‘the telephone and the bicycle, which have between them done so much to disintegrate family life’! As a fan of the TV programme “Only Connect”, I really should have been aware that its title was taken from the epigraph to Forster’s 1910 novel, “Howard’s End”! I probably now need to read “Passage To India”…
Blue Nights (Joan Didion): As you are probably already aware, Didion is a hugely-respected writer and journalist – famous in intellectual circles for her incisive commentaries on American politics and culture. Her husband John Gregory Dunne (novelist, screenwriter and literary critic) died in 2003 and she wrote an apparently brilliant book (“The Year of Magical Thinking” – something I’ve yet to read, but I will!) about their life together and her subsequent experiences of grief. “Blue Nights” begins on 26 July 2010 (the date of her adopted daughter’s seventh wedding anniversary). Her daughter died in March 2009, aged 39 and this book is about recollections of motherhood, parenting, pain and loss... and her own ageing process and frailty (she was 75 when she wrote “Blue Nights”). It’s a beautifully-written, controlled, raw, honest and haunting memoir.

 

Friday, January 16, 2015

swallows and amazons at the old vic


Moira+I went along to Bristol’s Old Vic theatre on Wednesday to see our second “Christmas show” of the season. Arthur Ransome’s 1929 novel had been adapted for the theatre by Helen Edmundson, with songs by Neil Hannon and this production (directed by Tom Morris) provided another wonderful evening’s entertainment. I THINK I can remember reading “Swallows and Amazons” in my youth (or was it just the television series I watched?)... and there’s definitely something rather nostalgic about the sense of fantastic childhood adventure (especially when mixed with memories  of my time as a boy scout!).
The principle members of the cast are all excellent, but I also loved that the minor characters - or “players in blue” (as the programme describes them) – were also musicians, prop-holders, water-throwers, wave-makers and much more besides. This was very much low-tech theatre at its very best. I continue to be massively impressed by the abilities and skills of theatrical designers (set, costume, sound and lighting... SO much invention and, best of all, so much left to the imagination of the audience. It was all very good fun.
Bristol has been exceptionally fortunate to have had two truly excellent Christmas shows this year (perhaps, not surprisingly, “101 Dalmatians” is still my favourite!).
I was waiting in the lobby before the show started and a mother(?) passed me, talking to her 8-9 year-old son(?)... she was trying to explain to him what “theatre” was all about. I have to say, her son looked pretty nonplussed and gave every impression of having been dragged along against his will. Well, this production was definitely another case of the “magic of theatre” and I’d be prepared to bet that the boy emerged into the night air after the show as an enthusiastic, passionate convert!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

pride


For our final cinema-going experience of 2014, Moira+I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Matthew Warchus’s “Pride” (various friends, including Gareth, Alan and Becki, had strongly recommended it - so it seems wrong not to!). Based on true events, it's set in the summer of 1984. Margaret Thatcher is in power and the National Union of Mineworkers is on strike. At a Gay Pride march in London a group of gay and lesbian activists decide to raise money to support the families of striking miners but, sadly, the Union is embarrassed to receive their support. Undeterred, the LGSM (Lesbians+Gays Support the Miners) decide to drive in a minibus to a mining village in deepest Wales to offer their donation in person… and so begins an extraordinary, surprising, poignant, uplifting story. It’s a beautiful, extraordinary film about pride, about community, about people… and, ultimately, about spirit (even against all the odds).
Thirty years on and it’s also a timely reminder of: a) the way in which the Thatcher government acted to destroy the miners (it still makes SO angry), b) the actions of the police during the year-long strike (something, I think, from which they’ve still not fully recovered), c) how the power and effectiveness of the unions has largely been eradicated (through legislation, but also partly as a result perhaps of Thatcher’s “it’s-all-about-the-indivual-and-damn-the-rest-you” legacy) and d) just how far society has changed when it comes to its attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (and LONG overdue!).
It’s a very powerful, glorious, saddening and yet hugely uplifting film… and a very good way to stride into a General Election year!

new year reflections 2014-5


For the past three years, I’ve posted something along these lines as we approach a new year (to remind ME… perhaps in years to come). It’s been a very happy and rewarding year in so many ways, so here’s a rough summary:
WONDERFUL BOOKS:
My top five, in order (almost impossible to limit it to just five – my SHORTlist was 15 books long!!): This Boy (Alan Johnson); Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (Billy Collins); The House of the Mosque (Kader Abdolah) and The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer) and With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer (Susannah Clamp).
GREAT FILMS:
My top six* (again, in vague order – although we didn’t get to the cinema all that often): The Imitation Game; Dallas Buyers Club; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Pride; Porco Rosso and Will+Testament (*sorry, I've added "Pride" after seeing it on the final day of 2014!).

LOVELY LIVE PERFORMANCES (broken down into various categories):
THEATRE:
My top five: 101 Dalmations (Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol); If Play Is Play (Royal Opera House, London); Jane Eyre (Bristol Old Vic); My Perfect Mind (Brewery Theatre, Bristol) and The Tiger and the Moustache (Brewery Theatre).

CONCERTS:
My top five: Three Cane Whale (twice!)(St George’s, Bristol); Martha Tilston (Colston Hall, Bristol); Eddi Reader (St George’s, Bristol); Seth Lakeman (Towersey) and Merry Hell (Towersey).
EXHIBITIONS:
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Rembrandt at The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Open Exhibition 2014 (RWA, Bristol); Pre-Raphaelites (Tate Britain)… oh, and of course, my one-man show at The Grain Barge! Sorry, must do better!
SPORTING MOMENTS:

Another rather lazy year as far as live sport goes… I went to Taunton to watch Somerset CC play (probably three times), Bath Races in June (with some of my old Norton Hill School buddies) and, as usual, I’ve enjoyed watching the Six Nations and the Autumn Rugby Internationals on TV (albeit the latter on catch-up, not live!)… but it’s not really the same. Once again, I MUST do better!
FRIENDS:
Once again, we’ve been blessed to be able to meet up with many of our lovely “special” friends (they know who they are!) on a pretty frequent basis during the course of the year. Also a wonderful visit to The Netherlands (Amsterdam, Houten and Utrecht) and staying with our lovely, generous friends Dick+Dientje in Houten… and meeting up with Harry+Willeke in Utrecht. We also had a lovely time in East Sussex - visiting lovely old friends Felicity+Chris and then going on to re-discover the charms of Winchelsea and Rye. I’ve probably missed some other important people!

ART STUFF:
Another very eventful and enjoyable year, including:

1. I’ve very much enjoyed continuing to post a drawing or photograph every day as part of my “One Day Like This” blog (with well over 400 drawings and 400 photographs since I started in September 2012).
2. I finished the final large elevation drawing (last of three) for Alan+Lesley - my father’s old Art Junior School in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
3. I set myself the challenge of taking dawn photographs (from our bathroom window!): ten consecutive daily photographs (“Ten Days of Dawns”) each month throughout the year – and culminating in a final image (“120 Days of Dawns”) for the entire year.
4. I’ve completed a series of drawings to illustrate a book by my good friend, Venetia Horton, on the history of Christianity in GB and Ireland.
5. One Man Exhibition (sounds far more impressive than it really was!) at The Grain Barge in October… and I actually sold a number of my drawings!
6. I took a whole series of photographs for an Advent book (in conjunction with poets Ian Adams and Chris Goan – and, crucially, with the help of the brilliant Si Smith) for Proost. It’s called “We Who Still Wait” (it’ll still be available for Advent 2015!!).
SIMPLE PLEASURES:
Cafes, reading, drawing, photography, walking, cycling, living near the sea (well, sort of…) and, of course, looking after grandchildren remain very important aspects of my life!

The massive bonus this year was that, following my hip replacement in May, I feel as if I’ve been given a new lease of life! The operation was a brilliant success and it REALLY has made a huge difference to my lifestyle.
SOMETHING YET TO BE CREATED/NEWLY CREATED:
There’s another Drawn Exhibition at the RWA in 2015 and, after being fortunate enough to get one of my drawings selected in 2013, I’d certainly like to be able to submit something. Who knows? I’d also quite like to produce a colouring book, or maybe two; one for children and one for adults (no, not THAT kind of colouring book!)… but, again, who knows? Oh, and a calendar.
EXPERIENCING NEW PLACES:
I’m still desperately keen to go back to Ireland… but Moira’s set her heart on a holiday in the Yorkshire Moors. I also long to walk along Porthmoor Beach at St Ives again! Through the AMAZING generosity of two very special friends, I’m also “booked in” for a five day golf tour to Northern France in June (I’ve played just one game of golf in the last two years)!
SPIRITUAL LIFE:
I no longer belong to a church (or attend Quakers meetings) and, although I continue to read church-related stuff from time to time, I’m really in a spiritual wilderness at present. So, another year of plodding? Who knows…

OTHER STUFF:
1. I became a Trustee at the wonderful Windmill Hill City Farm last Spring. It’s an amazing place with some brilliant people working/volunteering there.

2. I continue to take huge pleasure in seeing others grow and develop: loving seeing our daughters creating beautiful work (Ruth’s prints, jewellery and Shaun the Sheeps; Hannah’s posters, workshops and other projects; Alice’s book and her current novel-writing); and watching all our grandchildren growing up and learning new things.
3. I’ve enjoyed getting on my bike again (after my hip operation).

4. I’ve really enjoyed “discovering” (yes, very late in the day, I know!) the various Studio Ghibli films.
5. My beautiful, lovely daughters gave me a simply amazing present for my 65th birthday in February (well, actually, 65 presents to be opened over the course of 65 days)!
REGRETS:
My grandfather, Frank Walker (he died 30 years ago, in 1984), was a member of the 8th Brigade Royal Field Artillery during the Great War. I had hoped to get to France/Belgium at some stage to visit one or two of the key battle sites at some stage, but I think it’s probably not going to happen.

It’s been another wonderful year… and we continue to count our blessings.
Photo: one of my 120 Days of Dawns (photographed from our bathroom window!)