Tuesday, April 25, 2017

april 2017 books…

The Idiot Brain (Dean Burnett): This is a very entertaining and illuminating book. Its front cover boldly describes it thus: “a neuroscientist explains what your head is really up to”… and that just about sums it up. It endeavours to explain such things as how the memory works, panic attacks, depression, motion sickness, forgetting people’s names, false memories… At times, I felt somewhat numbed by scientific facts, but Burnett has a wonderful knack of being able to explain complicated stuff in a very simple (frequently very funny) way. He also highlights some very bizarre examples, such as: researchers who first looked into the phenomenon of less-intelligent people being more confident were “inspired by reports of a criminal who held up banks after covering his face with lemon juice, because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, so he thought his face wouldn’t show up on camera”. Precious!  
Wilderness Taunts (Ian Adams): This is the second of my Lent books (written by my brilliant friend Ian Adams). It’s a tough book of daily reflections/meditations – reflecting Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Challenging messages and, as the title suggests, taunts… but also there’s light. Maybe these taunts and challenges turn out to be gifts that help us to better understand who we are and whatever is being called of us? Despite its hard questions, I found the book both accessible, relevant and hugely thought-provoking (it also contains Ian’s beautiful, haunting photographs). A really excellent resource that I know I’ll continue to revisit.
London Transport Posters (Michael F Levey): This beautiful book tells the story of London Transport’s championing of poster art from 1909 until 1976 (thanks to the vision of Frank Pick, from the time he joined LT in 1906). I’ve always loved posters and, over the past couple of years, have been taking an increasing in the work of Fred Taylor (1875-1963) – who was born in London and designed posters for London Transport between 1908 and 1947. The book only contains 80 posters, but they’re enough to capture and highlight this particular art form born of our modern industrialised society. I really enjoyed this book… and it has also drawn my attention to several other talented artists, such as: E McKnight Kauffer, William Roberts, Oleg Zinger, FC Herrick and Charles Pears.
The Man In The Wooden Hat (Jane Gardam): Moira had recently read and very much enjoyed this book (it’s part of a trilogy), so I thought I’d give it a ‘go’. On the face of it, it really isn’t ‘my sort of thing’, but I was quite, quite wrong. It’s about a judge, his colonial upbringing and career, his long marriage, his rivalries and friendships… and told, in the main, from his wife’s perspective. It’s an evocative, charming, sometimes difficult, story about love, about people, about secrets… and about growing old. Gardam is a stunningly good writer and this was an exceptionally good book (I can’t wait to read the other two).
Book Of Longing (Leonard Cohen): Cohen has been something of a life-long hero for me. I’ve loved his songs right from the late 1960s. This book (first published in 2006) is a new collection of his poetry and writings – mainly taken from the mid-1980s onwards. For me, there are times when his work seems to have a sense of the ‘emperor’s clothes’ and leaves even me thinking: “I could have written that”, but I very much enjoyed the book. In a way, it tells the story of a life – sometimes playful, sometimes colourful, frequently erotic and occasionally angry. It also, perhaps, contains the arrogance of the idolised. Some of the pieces were subsequently used as song lyrics for the album “Ten New Songs”. One of the surprising joys, for me, was the inclusion of several of Cohen’s own illustrations (often quick, scribbled self-portraits ridiculing his ageing features!). Having finished the book in the early hours (not being able to sleep), I found the following words from his poem “I Am Now Able” wonderfully ironic (as well as not sleeping, I hardly ever use the telephone!): “I am now able/ to sleep twenty hours a day/The remaining four/are spent/telephoning a list/of important people/in order/to say goodnight…”. I’ll continue to dip into this rather lovely book.

Friday, April 21, 2017

the sense of an ending…

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Ritesh Batra’s film of Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning novel. I’d read the book nearly five years ago and had loved it.
The principal character, Tony (wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent), now retired and divorced, reflects on his schoolboy days, his friendships and a particularly painful relationship during his university days… and then something happens (I can’t tell you!) that turns the clock back 40 years.
Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica, Tony’s university girlfriend – with Billy Howie and Freya Mavor playing the characters (rather delightfully) in their younger days. The other main supporting actors Harriet Walter (who plays Tony’s ex-wife and confidante, Margaret), Michelle Dockeryl (who plays Tony’s daughter) and Emily Mortimer (playing Veronica’s mothers) are very good too.
Essentially, it’s a story about ageing and memory – something I’ve been reflecting on an awful lot lately.
It’s a poignant, moving film – beautifully acted and excellently crafted.
I was particularly pleased that the film included my favourite quote from the book (P95):
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves.”
I think you need to see it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro…

I went to the Watershed yesterday to see Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro”.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic… frequently exploring racial, sexual and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America.
Essentially, this is a documentary envisioning a book that Baldwin never finished. He left behind just 30 completed pages of a manuscript about the lives of three of his close friends – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The resulting film is a radical view of race in America today – using Baldwin’s original words (narrated by Samuel L Jackson) and a mass of archival material (including Baldwin participating in various studio discussions and also at a Cambridge Union debate in 1965). Again and again, Baldwin criticises the romantic perception of the “American Dream” and it has adversely affected African Americans.
I’d seen a preview of the film and knew that it would be difficult viewing.
Most of us are well aware of seeing footage of some of the horrific, vicious, racist scenes from the 1950s and 60s – including shameful scenes of police violence, the frightening, humiliating, anti-black protests by whites and a reminder of an awful time in the USA when white and black were segregated. Director Raoul Peck, in the Watershed’s programme notes, said this: “Because there were some victories with the Civil Right’s Movement - we have Martin Luther King day, we have Black History Month - most people think everything is good now, we’ve solved all of the problems. We have monuments; we have museums. But, that’s not the case”.  
The film represents a timely, powerful challenge to the definition of what America stands for today – especially in the light of relatively recent #BlackLivesMatter ‘incidents’ and since President Trump’s inauguration (and his various comments during the presidential campaign).
But, of course, sections of America aren’t alone in adopting such intolerant attitudes… in Europe, we have the migrant crisis (amongst other things) and here in the UK, after the depressing Brexit vote, we have seen an alarming rise in reported hate crimes.
Sadly, thirty years on, Baldwin’s words feel as urgent and as articulate as ever.
*NotInMyName*
It’s a difficult, shocking, compelling and saddening film to watch, but I urge you to see it.

Friday, April 07, 2017

march-april 2017 books…

Mystery In The Channel (Freeman Wills Crofts): Yet another escapist novel from the British Library Crime Classics! It was first published in 1931 and is very much of that era (although with a modern sub-text, given these days of austerity and the murky world of City finances). Two bodies are discovered on an otherwise deserted yacht in the English Channel… another challenging case for Inspector French! Like many of the crime novels of its time, the plot is hugely contrived (but intriguing, nonetheless) – one almost gets a sense of the author endeavouring to show his ‘cleverness’ to his fellow writers. Of course, I had my strong suspicions by page 48!
The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley): This is a very clever and frequently very funny book (first published in 1929). Yes, I apologise that it’s yet another escapist crime book but, having commented about crime writers trying to show off their cleverness (see previous book ‘review’!), the author takes some pleasure in highlighting the somewhat outlandish way in which his fellow crime writers compete to come up with contrived puzzles which their brilliant, deductive detectives solve – but which, in his view, seldom stood up to close scrutiny. The basis for Berkeley’s book is a crime club of six detective novelists who regularly meet up for dinner and conversation… but whose President comes up with the suggestion that they should each try to solve a recent unsolved, ‘real-life’ crime involving the poisoning of an attractive, rich, society woman. They take it in turns to offer a solution… each one more convincing than the last. Unusual and very entertaining.    
The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman (Grayson Perry): Moira and I went to the British Museum in 2011 to see Grayson Perry’s remarkable, fascinating exhibition. His work is accompanied by treasures trawled from the British Museum’s own collection. Although we bought the accompanying book, I hadn’t really read it until now (yes, I’d looked at the pictures, but that’s about it!)(actually, there aren’t that many words either!). It’s been particularly interesting after several recent chats to daughter Ruth about the status of craftspeople/makers in today’s art world. Perry is a bit of hero of mine, but I’d be the first to admit that, with him, it’s about ego and self-promotion (as well as huge artistic talent). I was particularly struck by Jacob Bronowski words included in the book’s introduction: “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well and, having done it well, he loves to do it better. You see it in his science. You see it in the magnificence with which he carves and builds, the loving care, the gaiety, the effrontery. The monuments are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end the man they commemorate is the builder”. The book, like the exhibition, is full of beautiful pieces, but it also left me reflecting on all the craftspeople whose talents were never fully recognised or rewarded… and how this situation remains for so many of these skilled artists today.
Death On The Riviera (John Bude): Ok, I really think I’m coming to an end of my ‘crime reading’ phase (I’ve just been attracted the British Library Crime Classics’ covers)! Another John Bude/Inspector Meredith novel (first published in 1952)… but no actual body appears before page 170! Set on the French Riviera, Inspector Meredith is sent to trace the whereabouts of renowned crook and forger… and action centres on the rather grand residence of an eccentric Englishwoman. Easy reading, entertaining, funny (at times), hugely dated (of course) and, as ever, pretty contrived… at one point, towards the end of the book, I even found myself saying “don’t tell me, you’re about to announce a somewhat ridiculous device that will magically solve all your plot problems” (and he duly did)! Hey ho… time I got back to ‘real life’ perhaps.
The Dark Flood Rises (Margaret Drabble): I’d never read a Margaret Drabble book before this one (Moira passed it on to me). I was duly impressed. She writes beautifully. It’s a novel about old age and dying (so, not a bundle of laughs then – although, actually, it is rather funny at times). The book’s main character, Fran (aged 70+), is a rather lovely, ordinary-but-special lady who lives on her own in an insalubrious tower block. She enjoys spending the odd night in a Premier Inn during the course of her work, being in touch with her friends, worrying about her children and feels a ‘duty’ to deliver ready-cooked meals to her first husband Claude (her second husband is dead). Fairly early on in the book, Drabble acknowledges that while life expectancy has increased, it’s reckoned that the majority of us can expect to spend the last six years of our prolonged lives suffering from a serious illness, in some form of pain and ill health. Fran, who (somewhat ironically) continued to work for a charitable trust researching sheltered housing for the elderly, was far from impressed: “Fran found this statistic, true or false, infuriating. Longevity has fucked up our pensions, our work-life balance, our health services, our housing, our happiness. It’s fucked up old age itself.” It’s a gentle, poignant book… but also one that I have to admit that I found rather depressing (probably just down to my current mood?). The beginning of the end? Oh dear me!

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

the olive tree…

I went to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Iciar Bollain’s film “The Olive Tree” (with screenplay by Paul Laverty – who’s penned many of Ken Loach’s films).
It’s a gentle, charming film about an old Spanish man (played by Manuel Cucala) who has retreated into depression and dementia after his family had, against his will, uprooted and sold off his beloved 2,000 year-old olive tree to pay for a failed, now bankrupt, family restaurant business.
His granddaughter, Alma (played by Anna Castillo), cannot bear the thought of her grandfather dying without this terrible wrong corrected… and comes up with a somewhat farcical, harebrained plan to locate the tree and return it to the family orchard.
She discovers that the buyer of the tree is a Dusseldorf energy company – which has an image of the tree as its logo as a symbol of its very questionable ‘green credentials’… and, thanks to social media, the plan energises German environmental campaigners.

The film is perhaps a sad reflection of the values (or lack of them) of big business set against environmental concerns, rich against poor… achieving wealth now and ignoring implications for the future.
Not the best film I’ll see in 2017, but rather lovely nevertheless.

 

Saturday, April 01, 2017

question mark at bristol cathedral…

This morning, I went along to Bristol cathedral to see/hear Stefan Smart perform/recite St Mark’s Gospel. I hadn’t heard anything about this until my good friend Stuart (from our old days in Thame) sent me a facebook message.
Who’s Stefan Smart? Well, sadly, I’d never heard of him before Stuart contacted me… he’s a Christian, but he’s also an English teacher who works alongside Stuart (a Language teacher).
Stefan performed in the cathedral Nave in front of a good-sized audience (and to the amazement of some of the ‘usual’ cathedral visitors as they shuffled down the side aisles!).
It was a stunningly good morning.

I know St Mark’s Gospel pretty well, but I found the experience completely captivating… almost mesmerising (it lasted just over 90 minutes). The cathedral acoustics were perfect for Stefan’s rich tones and I found his ‘performance’ perfectly pitched – very well dramatised, but not over-acted (as I slightly feared!) and with imaginative, simple use of the single ‘prop’ (a set of steps) and the space available. A really impressive, stimulating and thought-provoking performance.
A pretty amazing feat and a wonderfully effective and appropriate prologue to Holy Week. So pleased I went!
PS: Although Stuart had sent me a message letting me know that Stefan was happy for me to take photographs of the performance, the cathedral has a large notice forbidding people to take photographs within the cathedral… at any time (which I think is absolutely barmy). In the circumstances, I didn’t want to cause any disruption, so decided to leave my camera in my bag. However, I did do a few VERY rapid scribbled sketchbook doodles (not really looking at the paper at all) – so, I’m afraid, that’s the best I can offer (see above)!!
PPS: On my way home, I was reflecting on Stefan Smart’s incredible achievement of memorising the entire Gospel of St Mark… and then remembered being in a nativity play at St Mary’s church, Thame (I had ‘volunteered’ to play one of the Kings and Stuart’s wife, Mary, somewhat predictably played the part of Mary)… I had six lines to learn (or was it four? I can’t remember!). My moment duly came and I began: “Oh Mary”… this was followed by one of the longest dramatic pauses in the entire history of nativity plays (possibly more than 30 seconds?) as I desperately tried to remember what came next…
Oh, how we laughed (eventually)! Needless to say, Stefan didn’t have ANY such moments. Oh the irony!

phil king: live at the folk house…

I’ve been pretty lax about posting on Phil King’s gig at the Folk House last weekend (through juggling other stuff, not because of any lack of enthusiasm!)… so here goes:
I first really came across Phil when he was part of the wonderful musical backdrop (alongside Benji and Will Bower) to Sally Cookson’s equally wonderful ‘Jane Eyre’ (at the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre)… which also featured a certain Mr Felix Hayes!
At that stage, I was very aware that Phil had a brilliant voice and played the guitar beautifully!! Since then, I’d been given a copy of his excellent CD ‘The Wreakage’ and seen him perform in the Colston Hall Foyer… and suddenly realised what a multi-talented singer-songwriter he is.
Last Saturday’s gig marked the launch of his new CD ‘Phil King Live’ (recorded at Bristol’s Wardrobe Theatre). I was already familiar with probably half of the songs… but his one-man performance last week underlined just how good he is – the quality of the songs… the voice… the musicianship (and he's a really nice bloke too!).
He’s got it all.
I’ve heard people describe him as a bit like a cross between Damien Rice and John Martyn. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with this, but also felt there were similarities with Ray LaMontagne (although Phil’s got a better voice!)… So, it was rather nice that (finding that the Folk House had its very own piano) he decided to sing a LaMontagne song (‘Burn’) just before the interval… and I’ve attached a link to the actual video of him performing it (hope he doesn’t mind me downloading it from his facebook page).
As you’ll see/hear, it was excellent… just like the rest of the brilliant evening.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

march 2017 books…

Cheltenham Square Murder (John Bude): Another John Bude/Inspector Meredith book from the British Library Crime Classics. Originally published in 1937, it follows the pattern of the other Bude books I’ve read – somewhat implausible, far-fetched crime scenario with a group of unlikely characters worthy of a game of ‘Cluedo’… and the rather late-in-the-day introduction of key facts that magically allow the mystery to be solved! Nevertheless, an enjoyable, easy-read, escapist novel.
How To Disappear Completely (Si Smith): This 64-page comic is one of my Lent books this year. Its author/artist, Si Smith, is a great mate of mine. It’s profound, harrowing, challenging, sad, uplifting, funny and hauntingly beautiful. It reflects on the realities of life and faith in modern-day Leeds: “there is beauty here, if you look for it…but it’s a thin line – love and hate and this city is an ugly place too, with its gaudy excesses… and this compulsion to consume and be consumed”. But you don’t need to have a faith to appreciate this gem… it contains messages for us all in today’s materialistic, greedy world. A really excellent book.
Cross Country Murder Song (Philip Wilding): I bought this book on a whim from the £3 Bookshop. I didn’t read the blurb on the book’s cover – as far as I was concerned it was something of an escapist crime novel. Well, this proved to be a bit of an understatement. It’s a complex, disturbing, hauntingly sinister book. A man “with a headful of secrets” and a difficult past takes a journey from New Jersey to California. On his trip he meets a host of weird (and frequently frightening and often pathetic) characters. Let’s just say that it reminded me of watching one of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns – when you lose count of the bodies in the first 5 minutes! It’s a strangely-compelling and very dark (with funny moments!).
The 12.30 From Croydon (Freeman Wills Crofts): Yet another crime novel (again from the British Library Crime Classics, first published in 1934)… my period of escapist, easy-reading continues! However, this is a somewhat unconventional crime story. It starts with a body but, almost immediately, we know who carried out the murder. The remainder of the book is seen from the criminal’s perspective – his ‘justification’ for the deed and his intricate plans to carry out the killing without leaving any traces. Will he get away with it? It’s a clever, unorthodox and very intriguing story.
Venice (Jan Morris): I bought the 1993 edition of this book (first published in 1960) in 1998. I’d never read it straight through until now (I’d previously read chunks of it, but only in a somewhat piecemeal fashion). Having re-read Morris’s “Oxford” book recently (and hugely enjoyed it again), I decided that the time had come for me to give ‘Venice’ proper consideration. Venice is probably my favourite city in the world. I think I’ve visited it four times – the first in 1968 (just two years after the great sea flood which made us fear for the city’s long-term survival) and the last time in 1997 (in celebration of our silver wedding anniversary). Morris is a simply brilliant writer and this is a truly stunning book – made all the better in the knowledge that, having lived in the city (and been a boat-owner), she’s able to get under its skin and reveal a very different picture of Venice. With her detailed descriptions and vivid prose (each page crammed full of history, engineering, art, culture, people and gossip!), she provides a COMPLETELY absorbing, factual and emotional evocation of this historic and captivating city. I think we need to return!