Sunday, October 19, 2014

october 2014 books

more book stuff:
Cain (José  Saramago): As you might know, Portuguese Saramago was the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature (he died in 2010). He was an atheist and this short novel is told through the eyes of Cain as he “witnesses” various Old Testament passages from the Bible (from Adam+Eve, to killing his brother Abel, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to Mount Sinai, and eventually ending up on the Ark with Noah) that add to his increasing loathing of God - Cain even intervenes when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. It’s thought-provoking, provocative, often witty… and challenging.
Elgar: The Erotic Variations and Delius: A Moment with Venus (Ken Russell): I bought this book on a whim at the £3 Bookshop. I enjoy biographies and knew very little about the lives of these two composers so, despite the title (and Russell’s film reputation as a director who seeks to titillate at every opportunity!), I gave it go. I should have known better. He’s made something like 15 biographical films on composers and is convinced that most of his chosen composers have a dual personality (of course he does!). In fact, the flysheet of this book reveals another two Ken Russell novels in a similar/identical vein: “Beethoven: Confidential  and Brahms: Gets Laid”!! The two novels (ie. Elgar+Delius) read rather like Russell screenplays (or what I imagine them to be like) and, frankly, I found them tedious and somewhat irritating.
The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga): This novel, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, is our book group’s latest book. It’s set in India and tells the story of Balram Halwai – the uneducated son of a rickshaw-puller, but also a servant, a liar and a philosopher (among other things). The book’s title is the name Balram gives himself, as a budding entrepreneur (“the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”). It’s a depressing, savage (and yet also funny and strangely noble) story about globilisation, politics, corruption, freedom, immorality… and about the poor and underprivileged who cannot even meet their bare minimums… and about wealthy businessmen, politicians and others who shamelessly exploit them. It’s an angry book which points to all that is going on in a country that has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and bluntly asks “how can it be like this?”. I thought it was an exceptional, powerful book.
Deep River (Shusaku Endo): After various references to the Ganges in “The White Tiger” (see above), it seemed somewhat weird that my next book should also feature the sacred river – it’s funny how these coincidences KEEP happening! This novel traces the story of four Japanese tourists on a tour to India; they each to go there for different purposes and with different expectations, but each of them, in a way, finds their own spiritual discovery on the banks of the Ganges River. I suppose it’s a book about the “meaning of life” - although it certainly doesn’t attempt to give answers. It’s a wonderful, challenging book which touches on Buddhism, Christianity/Catholicism, reincarnation, faith and faithlessness – certainly more food for thought on my own rather haphazard spiritual journey.
A Life of Privilege, Mostly: A Memoir (Gardner Botsford): Another book from the £3 bookshop. I’m always attracted by biographies and, although I’d never heard of Gardner Botsford (1917-2004), I was suitably intrigued by the title of the book and the brief details outlined on its flysheet. Botsford was the editor of The New Yorker magazine for nearly 40 years and the book, published in 2003, tells of Botsford’s early life of privilege in the Depression years of the 1930s (his family of five had five live-in servants plus four other staff, a whole host of cars and enjoyed separate summer and winter residencies… as you do!); his WW2 experiences (part of the D-Day landings, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was wounded and decorated); and his fascinating career with The New Yorker. Beautifully written and observed and a mixture of tense conflict and humour.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

bristol festival of ideas: shami chakrabarti and owen jones

I just love the annual Bristol Festival of Ideas… always challenging and thought-provoking (eg. Richard Holloway’s talk four years ago has had a profound influence on how I see a whole of range of things). Last night, Moira, Gareth, Alan+I went to two talks at @ Bristol: Shami Chakrabarti (director of Liberty, UK’s leading civil rights organisation) and Owen Jones (writer, columnist and commentator)… and they were both simply brilliant.
She’s an incredibly impressive lady. In an hour-long question-and-answer session (which she handled with authority and dignity - as well as demonstrating her vast knowledge and intellect), it perhaps wasn’t surprising that one of the main issues raised was the present UK government’s threat to abandon the Human Rights Act in favour of its own self-styled British Bill of Rights. She talked passionately on the subject and gave example after example of some of the devastating implications of the government’s mooted proposals. Other subjects raised, in a wide-ranging discussion, included the bedroom tax, slavery, the House of Lords, Corporations (eg. TTIP), torture and respect for privacy. The packed audience was completely captivated by her and duly showed their loud and enthusiastic appreciation at the end of the session.
Over the past year or so, I’ve become a great admirer of Owen Jones’s writing (he’s a regular columnist in The Guardian). Yes, he’s left-wing. Yes, he’s young (30). But he’s also incredibly bright… and he talks an awful lot of sense (well, in my view at least). He’s recently written a book – “The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It” – and this formed the basis of the session. He talked for an hour (the first half an hour about the things included in the book and then another 30 minutes of questions-and-answers). He’s a remarkable and very gifted young man. He’s the sort of person who has the ability to express concerns on behalf of many of us who have become disillusioned with “establishment politics”. With certain exceptions, he doesn’t have a particularly high regard for our current batch of politicians (of whatever party)… in a recent article in the Guardian, he described them as “technocratic, rootless, soulless; a professionalised morass of time-servers who see ministerial posts as springboards to nice little earners on corporate boards; manoeuvring constantly not on the basis of political principle but for shameless self-advancement”!
There was nothing particularly startling (or new) in what he said last night (eg. lobbyists who fund the thinktanks that influence the government, or the owners who appoint the editors who set the political agenda, or the tax accountants who get seconded to the civil service that decides how much their clients will pay), it’s just that I found myself agreeing with point after point he was making (and so did the vast majority of the full-house attending last night). His talk was very much a “call to arms” – to scrutinise the powerful (the corporations, the politicians etc) in these austere times and to redress the balance away from the poor, who are all too often (according to politicians and much of the media) blamed for our current financial predicament. Amen to that!
We all need people who make us think, who give us hope, who challenge us… and who encourage us to make our voice heard. Chakrabarti and Jones CERTAINLY did that last night!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

eddi reader

Moira, Ruth+I went to St George’s last night to see/hear Eddi Reader in concert… and she was simply wonderful. She has an amazing voice – jazzy, soulful, joyous, sublime, soaring – and last night she covered a huge range of musical styles from traditional to contemporary. She clearly loves performing her songs and her passion, talent and character were massively appreciated by the sell-out audience.
I first came across her with Fairground Attraction in 1987/8 (you might remember “Perfect”?… ok, so perhaps not, it was 26 years ago afterall!). The last time I saw her was at Greenbelt in 2001.
When I was working in the Iona bookshop in 2012, I frequently used to play her excellent “Songs of Robert Burns” CD to customers (I think I was the only customer who bought it, but hey…). She was a strong advocate for Scottish Independence and, as you might imagine, politics (plus her hilarious family and travels) came into the chat between songs - and heart-felt, very funny stuff it was too… a sort of biography through music.
A brilliant evening of the kind of music that makes you glow inside.
PS: I’ve added her “Love is The Way” CD to my Christmas list.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

effie gray

Moira, Alan+I went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Richard Laxton’s “Effie Gray”. I thought I knew quite a bit about John Ruskin’s life, but his unconsummated marriage to Euphemia “Effie” Gray was something I was previously totally unaware of (yes, I need to read/get out more!). The film was all rather beautiful – lots of images of autumnal Scotland to enhance Effie’s auburn hair and the sumptuous “celtic” colours of her outfits… and gorgeous scenes filmed in Venice (you can’t really get better in my book) – and the story was intriguing, BUT… if truth be told, I found it all just a little boring (turgid even?) and somewhat sugar-coated. Emma Thompson effectively played the part of a sort of fairy-godmother (Lady Eastlake - if you’ve written the screenplay, as she did, you can do these things); Effie was well played by Dakota Fanning; and Ruskin (played by Greg Wise) was suitably obnoxious. I do like Emma Thompson as an actress (and as a person), but feel that she always seems to play “Emma Thompson” whatever role she has… and this film was no different. And, of course, an Emma T film wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t include a whole host of her acting buddies - the cast included David Suchet, Julie Walters, James Fox, Robbie Coltrane, Derek Jacobi and, of course, her real life husband Greg Wise! The only real surprise was that Stephen Fry didn’t suddenly show up in the final scene…
Perfectly watchable, but certainly not one of my favourite films of 2014.  

Sunday, October 05, 2014

will and testament

Moira+I mixed cinema culture and politics yesterday afternoon, along with our very good friends Gareth+Alan, at the Watershed (again, yes I know…) to see “Will and Testament” – a documentary of intimate interviews with Tony Benn, as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Benn was the much-loved Labour MP for Bristol South East for more than 30 years. I’ve always been an admirer of Tony Benn and, as I’ve got older (and wiser!), my admiration for him has only increased. Sadly, all too often, it seems that it’s only when politicians are no longer seen as influential rivals or opponents that people really start to listen. For me, this is true for people from a wide spectrum of political backgrounds – even the likes of Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo, for example!   
This is an intimate and deeply personal film about Benn – frequently involving the powerful themes in his life… his hopes and fears, his optimism and dreams, his wife and family. I particularly liked the piece in the film when Harold Wilson commented that he reckoned Tony Benn had “immatured with age”! We all know that Benn was a bit of a romantic at heart (and there’s definitely nothing wrong in that!) and, often, he’s also been a bit of a maverick (and difficult to have on your “team” perhaps?). But this is a brilliant film and one that I vow to watch at least once every five years for the rest of my life – a reminder to us all of the hope and determination required to fight for the things we believe in. Yes, this rebel eventually became a “national treasure”… but, significantly, in this film he also emerges with charm and persuasiveness as well as consistency, dignity and good humour (and very many of his views have been vindicated over the course of time). He was a very good, decent and inspiring man.
In the film, Benn says that he would be very pleased if his epitaph read: “He encouraged us”… and I think that’s absolutely right. He has certainly encouraged me. What would the Labour Party give today for someone with Benn’s integrity and charisma?  

Saturday, October 04, 2014

maps to the stars

I had a “day off” yesterday… I cycled along the Harbourside. I had coffee at the fairly new, and rather nice, Brigstow Lounge Café (just opposite the SS Great Britain). I did a couple of drawings, I took some photographs… and I went to the Watershed cinema to see David Cronenberg’s very strange film “Maps to the Stars”. It’s set in the dog-eat-dog celebrity world of Hollywood – fading actresses (the excellent Julianne Moore plays one of them), spoilt showbiz kids, drug addiction, wannabe screenwriters, guru psychoanalysts … you get the picture. But what initially appears to be a film that satirises of the movie business unravels into a rather weird, macabre and tense two hours that seemed to have a grip on the entire Watershed cinema audience (ok, it was only a Friday afternoon, but…).
The Watershed’s blurb includes this: “We can’t give away too much but, suffice to say, this is a brilliant nightmare of the film that is Cronenberg’s strangest, most deliciously odd film yet…”. Well, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve not previously seen any of his films, but “brilliant nightmare” seems a fair summary!

Thursday, October 02, 2014

dracula at the old vic

The night before last, it was the theatre. Last night, it was the ballet.
Moira+I continued our week of culture and live performance at Bristol’s Old Vic last night when we went to see “Dracula” performed by the wonderful Mark Bruce Company. I hadn’t spent my early adult years watching horror movies, but even I had a vague knowledge of the vampire legend (based on Bram Stoker’s book of the same name, first published in 1897).
I knew that last night was going to be dark, dramatic… and bloody.
In fact, it was pretty amazing. I know very little about dance, but I was completely captivated by the mesmerizing brilliance and athleticism of the dancers… it literally took my breath away at times. Jonathan Goddard as Dracula was simply superb (we’d previously seen him in HeadSpaceDance’s “If Play Is Play” in April) and Eleanor Duval, as Mina Harker, and Kristin McGuire, as Lucy Westenra, both also gave stunning performances (I was particularly captivated by McGuire’s intensely beautiful, powerful portrayal). The music was stunningly good too – ranging from the intense, painful, grating themes composed especially for this piece to traditional folk tunes, Beethoven, Bach, Schnittke and even Florrie Forde’s “Down at the Old Bull and Bush”!
Another stunning evening of live performance (the last performance at the Old Vic is on Saturday 4 October… but the tour continues to Manchester, Birmingham, London, Glasgow, Caernarfon, Ipswich, Brighton and beyond). Catch it if you possibly can.
As we walked home under a clear, half moon, black sky… I resisted the temptation the kiss Moira’s neck…