Friday, January 20, 2017

manchester by the sea…

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon (somewhat cramped in the tiny Cinema 2 for a virtual sell-out audience – the annual Slapstick Festival takes precedence at this time of year) to see Kenneth Lonergan’s critically acclaimed film “Manchester By The Sea” (in the USA, not the one that’s home to Old Trafford!).
I don’t want to give away too much of the story but, essentially, troubled Boston-based handyman Lee (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) has his rather sparse existence further disrupted by the death of his older brother. This forces him to return to his hometown on the Massachusetts north shore, but he is horrified to discover that that he has been appointed guardian to his16 year-old nephew, Patrick (again, excellently played by Lucas Hedges). This return to his old stomping ground provides Lee with memories of an earlier devastating family tragedy involving his ex-wife Randi (convincingly played by Michelle Williams – although I had envisaged her taking a more prominent role in the story).
Lee’s basic, depressing, lack-lustre life is a struggle. For him, life is drudgery and mere existence. He’s variously hiding his emotions or exploding in frustration. Gradually, dual timelines emerge in the film and we begin to understand the toils a little more clearly.
The film is about grief, hope and love… it’s stark, moving, comical (at times), intimate, tender and very impressive.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

peter pan…

Moira and I went up to London yesterday to see Sally Cookson’s much-acclaimed version of JM Barrie’s “Peter Pan” at the National Theatre.
It was simply brilliant.
You know the story, of course… Peter, the boy who never grew up; the Darling family’s nursery and daughter Wendy; the ability to fly; Tinker Bell; the lost boys in Never Land; Captain Hook and the pirates… and, of course, the crocodile!
It’s just a children’s story.
Well, yes. But this telling of the story was completely magical.
Colourful, funny, dramatic, brilliantly inventive, poignant… theatre at its very, very best.
The production was devised entirely by the cast (in typical Cookson manner) - which included Benji Bower’s wonderful, integral, music – and made the most of the individual characteristics of the Olivier Theatre (with its drum-revolve stage). The costumes, set design and ‘streetwise’ storytelling are all spot-on.
The entire cast is absolutely excellent - including Felix, of course (“just plain perfect” as one critic described him!), as Smee and Mr Darling – with Paul Hilton stunning as Peter; Anna Francolini suitably fierce and sinister as Hook (and charming as Mrs Darling!); Madaleine Worrall as an ideal Wendy; and Saikat Ahmed as a ridiculous, but perfect, Tink!
It’s very difficult to pick any highlights of this show, but it would be utterly wrong not to mention the FLYING! They don’t go for any invisible wires, they go for rope systems and flying harnesses (which they describe to the audience as “fairy string”!)… with fellow cast members acting as counterweights, bouncing up and down tall stage scaffolding as the central characters ‘fly’. The whole effect is extraordinary and wonderful… the first time Peter launches himself out over the front stalls is simply breath-taking.
This production was definitely for BOTH children and adults. The Olivier Theatre was packed for the matinee performance we saw. The audience included lots of children (included one group we noticed who’d dressed for the occasion… as pirates, a sea captain and a green-clad Peter, as you do!) and everyone (including the adults, let me stress) was captivated (in a very enthusiastic way!).
Yes, it’s just a children’s story (and I know I’m soft)… but it made me cry.
Magical, brilliant, uplifting – live performance at its very, very best.
PS: IF I was any good with heights and IF I was young and fit, then I think I’ve discovered my new dream career: “professional counterweighter” (yes, that’s how the programme describes three individuals who spend most of the production “bouncing up and down tall stage scaffolding” for some of the most dramatic scenes)!

Friday, January 13, 2017

la la land...

Moira and I went along to the Watershed (where else?) this afternoon to see Bristol’s first showing of this acclaimed film. Somewhat predictably, even for an afternoon showing, it wasn’t far off being a full house. The scenario (as you probably already know) is two people - a jazz pianist (Seb, played by Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Mia, played by Emma Stone) – who fall in love while pursuing their dreams of Hollywood stardom.
I purposely tried to avoid knowing too much about the film in advance… basically, I knew it was a musical of sorts and that it also featured dance (the poster's a bit of a give-away).
Ridiculously for most film buffs, I really hadn’t seen much of Emma Stone before this film (Birdman is the only one I can recall?) and, whilst I recognised Ryan Gosling, our paths clearly hadn’t crossed too many times in the past (I know!)(in fact, before the film, I felt sure I wasn’t going to like him!).
Well, surprise surprise, I found it absolutely delightful.
Predictably, Seb was first class and I’m in love with Mia (who was also first class)!
Yes, it’s something of ‘an all-singing, all-dancing romance’, but it’s not over-slushy and I particularly enjoyed the music. Neither Gosling nor Stone are natural singers, but I thought they were both perfect for their respective roles (and they both dance rather gracefully too!). To its credit (for me, at least), the film isn’t over-glitzy and, indeed, even has a degree of ‘ordinariness’ about it, which merely adds to its charm.
I’ve just read Peter Bradshaw’s (5 star) review in The Guardian… and he makes reference to the film’s “primary-coloured homage to classic movie musicals”. I can only endorse this (not that my knowledge of classic movie musicals is extensive!). In fact, there were some scenes that made me think of director Wes Anderson – beautifully orchestrated and stunningly graphic (frequently shot against a backdrop of a colourful building façade or a painted wall or a stunning skyline at dusk etc etc).
Moira wasn’t quite sure about the film (she reckoned it took her an hour to get into it – but, then she’s not a great lover of music or musicals), but I really enjoyed it.
After all the gloom and doom following Trump’s election and the repercussions of the Brexit vote, this film is a breath of fresh air… it’s about hopes and dreams.
Ok, in a way, it might be pure escapism, but it’s also uplifting and an absolute joy… and we certainly need more of that at present!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

january 2017 books…

Long Live Great Bardfield: Autobiography  (Tirzah Garwood): Towards the end of last year, thanks to my good friend David, I read an excellent memoir of the artist Eric Ravilious - who married fellow artist Tirzah Garwood in 1930. Thanks to Moira, I became aware that TG had written an autobiography and, being rather fascinated by British art of the 1920s and 30s, added the book to my Christmas wish-list. Well, I’m VERY glad that I did! Eric Ravilious died early in 1942 (lost at sea in the war) and, somewhat strangely perhaps(?), TG began writing her autobiography (largely for her grandchildren, it seems) in March 1942, when she was in hospital recovering from a mastectomy operation for primary cancer (she completed the first draft in May that year and finalised most of the manuscript by February 1943). She died in 1951. The book was first published in 2012 (and by Persephone Books in 2016) – having been edited (and added to on the basis of TG’s own notes) by her daughter Anne Ullmann. It’s a long (some 500 pages) but brilliantly-written book which also contains copies of beautiful engravings, drawings, paintings and photographs. As well as being a record of the life of a woman who was at the centre of an important group of artists, it also provides a fascinating social history of the time. Tirzah was brought up “in comfort”, whereas Eric’s background was essentially working class (the Garwoods apparently felt socially embarrassed at Tirzah’s choice and Eric’s parents were equally perplexed!). TG is a natural, gifted writer with a hugely engaging and amusing ability to describe people and situations with an honest and endearing frankness. Apart perhaps for a section in the middle of the book which seemed to read a bit like an episode from The Archers (not that I listen to such radio programmes these days!) about who fancied who and what steps they took to try to ensure an appropriate conclusion, I found the book completely captivating. This might be the very first book I’ve read in 2017, but I suspect it might be one of the very best I read in the entire year.
If I Could Tell You Just One Thing (ed. Richard Reed): Amongst other things, Richard Reed is the co-founder of ‘Innocent’ (the smoothie people) and this book was compiled through his “encounters with remarkable people”. The list of people is impressive and, as you might imagine, their ‘most valuable advice’ is frequently profound and thought-provoking (eg. Bill Clinton, Shami Chakrabarti, Harry Belafonte, Judi Dench, Sandy Toksvig, Richard Curtis, Nicola Sturgeon etc)… but there were also some that just irritated me! Here’s just one example: “Don’t take holidays… Give yourself a maximum of a day or day and a half a year. And use that to read books on your industry. The rest of the time you should just work” (Indra Nooyi, Global CEO of PepsiCo). But on the positive side, I particularly liked the two examples provided by Margaret Busby (writer, broadcaster, literary critic and ‘rule-breaking publisher’): “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who takes the credit” (via Harry Truman); and that her approach to life is ultimately best captured by a Greek proverb she read: “A society grows great when old men plant trees under which they know they will never sit”. I know it’s one of those books that I’ll just pick it up and browse on a regular basis.
Pour Me (AA Gill): This is Gill’s autobiography, published in 2015. He died from lung cancer in December 2016, aged 62. He was a journalist, TV+restaurant critic and a travel/features-writer. I read his book “AA Gill is Away” in 2011. Somewhat ridiculously, this was the first time I’d come across him and, from my blog post of the time, I commented: “His writing was a revelation for me. He has a brilliant writing style – punchy, humorous and intelligent (and, on occasions, somewhat maddening!)”. I very much regret not having read more of Gill’s stuff… and will endeavour to make amends over the coming years. His autobiography is a poignant, funny, dark, honest and, at times, quite moving book… telling of his struggles with dyslexia, alcoholism (he gave up drinking at 30) and drugs, but also evocatively about his family (especially his father and his brother), parenting, his days as an art student at the Slade… and passionately about journalism and food (amongst other things). It’s a very special, rather brilliant, book.
The Cornish Coast Murder (John Bude): One of those “Golden Age of Crime Novels” (published in 1935). As you might imagine – after having just consumed two brilliant autobiographies - this book provided some straightforward, non-challenging(?), New Year, comfort fiction. Very readable and enjoyable… although, like an awful lot of these mystery novels, you spend all your time trying to solve the crime through the given clues – only to find that this was an impossible task… because the final piece of the jigsaw is only revealed in the final chapter!
A Country Of Refuge (ed. Lucy Popescu): I really think you need to read this book. It will make you angry. It will also make you feel sad. It’s a book about the strength of the human spirit. It’s a powerful collection of memoir, essays, short fiction and poetry that explores what it really means to be a refugee. It will challenge the way we, especially in the UK, think about and act towards the dispossessed and those forced to seek a safe place to call home. It’s a brilliant, measured, indictment against the much of the media’s (and in turn the public’s) frequent descriptions of refugees as “a moral, cultural, biological and spiritual threat” (as one of the book’s contributors, AL Kennedy, expresses it)…”As David Cameron put it, ‘a swarm of people’. When people are in a swarm, they aren’t people. They are both an alien species and a danger”. Jon Snow has described it thus: “At last, here is a rich and times beautiful insight into the painful individuality of the refugee and the life lost in the face of a collective struggle for freedom and future”. A poignant reminder of the humanity of each and every individual forced to flee their own country.

Friday, January 06, 2017


I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Martin Scorsese’s lengthy film “Silence” (some 2hrs 40 mins long!), based on Shusaku Endo’s book of the same name (published in 1966). Strange as this may seem to cinema-lovers, but I think I’ve only watched a couple of Scorsese films in my life! Endo’s profound, disturbing, harrowing novel - about a 17th century Portuguese priest in Japan at the time of great persecution of the small Christian community - was one of our Book Group books in 2014. Scorsese first read the book in 1989 and, over the past 25 years, the possibility of turning it into a film became one of his true passion projects.
Like the book, I found the film utterly compelling… tragic, challenging and unrelenting. Christians in Japan are dealt with viciously… this is a world where Christians are asked to spit on the cross or to stamp on an image of Christ to prove they have renounced their faith (if they demur, they or their families will be cruelly tortured and killed). You certainly don’t need to be a Christian (or to have any other religious beliefs) to appreciate the film, but it’s very definitely a film that makes you question one’s own faith and the very nature of God. Will God remain silent in the face of such unimaginable suffering?
It’s all about the struggle for the very essence of faith.
Tough, but a brilliant film.
PS: Our Resonate group went to see the film last Tuesday, but I was unable to make it… but, after nearly 3 hours of film, I probably wouldn’t have been much good for any après-film discussion! No doubt there will be other opportunities to compare notes…

Saturday, December 31, 2016

new year reflections...

Another year’s reflections (as always - a reminder to ME!):
For me, the most depressing words of 2016 are “Brexit” and “Trump” (I know there are lots of other words/phrases I could add to these – such as refugees, climate change, Syria/Aleppo, Tory government, Labour Party, the media, the haves-and-the-have-nots and austerity, to name just a few!). If you check out my facebook page or this blog from time to time, you will no doubt already know this! I’m afraid my faith in democracy has largely disappeared. The EU Referendum (which should never have happened in the first place) was a shambolic, disastrous farce - with outrageous claims and lies from both sides… and something that can’t be reversed in the short- or long-term (our children and their children have to bear the brunt of its consequences). It seems that, as a society, we’ve become a hateful, vindictive, racist, selfish bunch… and it saddens me beyond measure. Trump being elected US President simply underlined our very worst fears. SURELY, it couldn’t happen? But, ridiculously and (probably) catastrophically, it HAS.

Another depressing aspect of 2016 has been the death of so many high-profile/famous individuals, including: Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, George Martin, Terry Wogan, Carla Lane, Jo Cox, Fidel Castro, Johan Cruyff, John Glenn, AA Gill, Rick Parfitt, George Michael… to name just a VERY few.

Anyway, on the more positive things:
My top TWELVE, in some sort of order!! (I’d intended to limit it to just FIVE, but found it impossible – it’s been a bumper year!): The Year Of Living Danishly (Helen Russell); The Iceberg (Marion Coutts); Coffin Road (Peter May); Oxford (Jan/James Morris); Postcapitalism (Paul Mason); A Year Of Marvellous Ways (Sarah Winman); Quiet (Susan Cain); Rose (Georgina Hounsome+Alexandra Higlett); The Old Ways (Robert Macfarlane); Somewhere Towards The End (Diana Athill); Sheila (Robert Wainwright) and The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Richard Flanagan).


My top nine (in vague order… Mark Kermode and I just have to agree to disagree)… again, can’t get it down to 5:
Spotlight; I, Daniel Blake; Rams; Ethel and Ernest; Captain Fantastic; High-Rise; Bone Tomahawk, Trumbo and The Eagle Huntress.

(broken down into various categories):
We’ve been absolute rubbish at going to the theatre this year!
Jane Eyre (National Theatre)(brilliant!); The Snow Queen (Bristol Old Vic) and You Can Never Tell (Shaw’s Corner).
Highlights: Lisa Hannigan; Grayson Perry (if you can call his performance a “concert”!?); Tom Robinson; Three Cane Whale; Paul Bradley, London Klezmer Quartet and Nessi Gomes.

Not as many as I’d have liked (but I might have forgotten one or two?): Alexander Calder “Performing Sculpture” (Tate Modern); The British Museum generally (particularly enjoyed revisiting The Parthenon Sculptures plus Assyrian+Egyptian sculptures); Daphne Wright “Emotional Archeology” (Arnolfini); Fabric of India (V+A); and, of course, the Annual Open Exhibition (RWA).

I actually watched a little more “live” sport this year, including: Cricket at Taunton (three days, I think) and at Edgbaston; Football at Villa Park (Villa lost to Liverpool 0-6!) and at Ashton Gate (Villa lost to Bristol City 1-3!); Rugby at Ashton Gate (Bristol Rugby lost to Northampton I0-32!).
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… always special occasions… and have also really enjoyed making new friendships. Other highlights included Julia+Joe’s wedding in Tuscany and Kerry+Allan’s wedding in Stoke Poges – with brilliant friends; getting together with the wonderful Franziska Opp (from Germany/Iona), Joy Banks (from Canada) and re-connecting with Nick+Christine in Luton.

Another really enjoyable, busy year, including:
1. I’ve still very much enjoyed continuing to post a drawing or photograph every day as part of my “One Day Like This” blog (now approaching 800 drawings and 800 photographs since I started in September 2012). I also produced another Blurb book of drawings (and, this time, photographs) entitled “Four Years Like This” to mark four years of blogging.

2. I joined a brilliant Drawing Group – organised by a wonderful lady (and talented artist!), Charlotte Pain, with the support of the Churches Conservation Trust. We meet for two hours most Tuesdays (and also occasionally go “on tour” to draw other churches on the CCT’s list.

The Group also held its first exhibition “Within The Wall” at St John-on-the-Wall church, Bristol.
3. We had another successful Arts Trail at number 40 (I think this was our 13th consecutive year)… and attracted some 700 people into our basement over the Arts Trail weekend!

4. I produced a large, coloured drawing (well, three drawings – one for each of our front windows) as part of the very successful Window Wanderland last March.
5. I provided some photographs for an exhibition in Saint Stephen’s church in Bristol as part of a Friendly Stage/B.Friend fund-raising evening.
6. I produced a 2017 Calendar of Bristol drawings (you might recall that I undertook the drawings a year ago!)… and sold all 50 copies by the beginning of November!!

Cafes, reading, drawing, photography, walking, cycling (rather less this year), living near the sea (well, sort of…) and, of course, looking after our Bristol grandchildren remain very important aspects of my life (although, now that they’re all at school, our time with them is sadly a little reduced these days… but school-runs and child-sitting partly make up for it!).

Feel SO lucky to have the family we have… and great that we all “get on” so well and are able to see each other regularly (even if we don’t see the Chorley/Lancashire contingent as often as we’d like).
It’s good that Gaol Ferry Steps FINALLY opened this year, just down the road. As a result, I spend a fair amount of my café time at the wonderful Mokoko! Wild Beer is also amongst the units there – great designer beers and lovely food!!
I think I need to do some brainstorming as far as “future projects” are concerned. It’s possible that I might be involved in art project in Leeds with my great mate Si Smith and a few other family members perhaps. I’m also vaguely considering doing another calendar – this time based on Birmingham (my ‘home town’)… or maybe even Oxford? I’ll obviously continue to explore Bristol (perhaps drawings and/or photographs from around Temple Meads?) but also maybe old boats at Sharpness? Cardiff? Clevedon? Bath? Forest of Dean? Lyme Regis?  Perhaps also more train excursions exploring places within easy reach of Bristol? Coastal walks? Canal-side walk to Bath? We’ll see (I think I said the same thing last year!)…

We’ve tightened our belts a little this year, but have been delighted to enjoy an excellent few days in St Ives (celebrating Ruth’s 40th birthday!) and a week in beautiful Cortona, Italy (celebrating Joe+Julia’s marriage).

I think I’ve only played one game of golf this year (or was it two?).
We continue to be part of the Community of Saint Stephens (St Stephens Street in the heart of the city) and it really does now feel like our “spiritual home”. We’ve made some really good friends with the very special people there and, although my own faith-life continues on its rather meandering course, it all feels pretty good, hopeful stuff…

The successful hip replacement (April 2014) continues to REALLY make a huge difference… walking and cycling are no problem at all. Brilliant. The other nagging health issue I commented on this time last year was persistent bursitis in my right arm. It lasted for perhaps 9 months and was quite debilitating, but I’m pleased to report that this has now largely cleared.
After a nagging flu virus, followed by a persistent cough, earlier in the year, I was aware that I was becoming a little short of breath at times (nothing dramatic, I hasten to add!). Following various tests, it turned out that I had an irregular heartbeat (“Atrial fibrillation”) and have been duly prescribed blood thinning tablets. I continue to attend various hospital appointments to monitor all sorts of stuff – which is fine by me as it feels a bit like an “oldies MOT”!
I actually feel in very good health and probably walk 3-4 miles virtually every day. If only my teeth+gums, cut/inflamed right shin (which is taking an absolute age to heal) and perhaps hearing(?) would sort themselves out, I’d be a PERFECT, healthy specimen! 
1. Being a Trustee at the wonderful Windmill Hill City Farm continues to be good fun (it’s an amazing place with some brilliant people working/volunteering there). A fair amount of hard work and responsibility, but it all feels very worthwhile.
2. After several years of helping, I’m giving the local Arts Trail steering group a ‘break’ for another year (at least!) – hopefully, they’ll find enough willing hands to allow it go ahead!
But hey, for us as a family, it’s been another pretty good year… and we continue to count our blessings.

Photo: family on Leigh Woods Christmas Eve walk.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

november-december 2016 books

The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien): First published in 1960 (O’Brien’s first published novel), this is a story, narrated in the first person, of Caithleen – who at the beginning is a 14 year-old girl living in an Irish village and at the end is an 18 year-old in Dublin. Together with her childhood friend Baba, they leave the safety of their convent school in search of life and love in the big city, they struggle to maintain their somewhat tumultuous relationship. It’s about girls becoming women, about innocence… and, ultimately, about them finding their own separate ways. It’s funny and charming, but I also found it a sad and rather dark book… about the innocence of youth.
Jeeves In The Offing (PG Wodehouse): Yes, I know, all very predictable… farcical storyline; wonderfully eloquent (in a 1920’s sort of way); the idle rich; inevitable outcome; rather funny. You get the general idea. But, actually, at this time of constant grim news (Trump, Brexit et al), the book comes as a very refreshing, uplifting change.
Ways Of Life (Andrew Motion): I like Motion’s writing. This book, published in 2008, represents a selection of his non-fiction writing over the past 30 years – specifically, articles about places, painters and poets… as well as some striking personal pieces. I particularly enjoyed Motion’s description of places (‘Homecoming’ and ‘Sailing to Italy’ for example) and, although I occasionally struggled with his essays on some poets or painters I was unfamiliar with, found this book to be a beautiful insight into the lives of an abundance of creative people - enriched by Motion’s wise, measured, rewarding words.
The Voice Of The Violin (Andrea Camilleri): This is an Inspector Montalbano Mystery (I’ve never read one before). Set in Sicily, Montalbano is one of those police officers who have a natural disdain for their so-called superiors. It’s an intriguing (I seem to find most crime novels quite clever – perhaps it’s my limited intellect/expectations?) story of corruption, false clues and vendettas… mixed with delicious meals and much humour (very funny at times). Ideal ‘comfort food’ for the Christmas holiday period!
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (Max Porter): This is a rather beautiful, heartrending, surprising little book. It’s part-poetry, part-drama and part-essay on grief. The book’s flysheet summarises it thus: “two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness… In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This sentimental bird is drawn to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him”. I’ve actually read Hughes’s book “Crow” (poems/mythical narrative/epic folk tale he wrote following the suicide of his wife Sylvia Platt – I didn’t understand/appreciate huge chunks of it, but it certainly left an impression). The format (written featuring a series of contributions from ‘Crow’, ‘Dad’ and ‘Boys’) reminded me of Claire Williamson’s Soulwater Pool”, which I read earlier in the year. Hugely inventive, very unusual and hauntingly powerful. Excellent.  
Footnote: Once again, I seem to have read an awful lot of books this year (my blog tells me it’s 70 – it was apparently 69 in 2015)… I think they call it “retirement”!