Wednesday, December 28, 2011

december books

These are my latest books to round off 2011:
The Floating Island (Anna Ralph): I bought this book on the strength of author Helen Dunmore’s enthusiastic endorsement on the sleeve (including: “it has a touch of DH Lawrence about it”). Well, I have to say, I was VERY disappointed. Yes, it was a very readable but absolutely nothing out of the ordinary and, to my mind, of no particular literary merit. I was left wondering why the author had bothered (sorry!).
To the Castle and Back (Vaclav Havel): Vaclav Havel – playright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician - became a leading figure in the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 (and, ultimately, president), the bloodless end to communism in Czechoslovakia. Strangely, I’d just finished reading this book before his death (on 18 December). It’s an illuminating memoir – part reflection, part interview by journalist Karel Hviz’ala, part diary extracts – of a fascinating period in European politics. Various extracts reminded me of the time I was on holiday in Yugoslavia in August 1968 when Russia (and other eastern bloc countries) invaded Czechoslovakia in order to halt Alexander Dubcek’s political liberalization reforms (although Tito’s Yugoslavia didn’t participate in the invasion, I was aware of what appeared to be an awful lot of “troop movement” within the country at the time). Perhaps not all that surprising given his background, the book is full of references to his speech-writing (he clearly wrote all his own stuff – and just relied on observations from his colleagues – a far cry from West Wing!). He had a powerful motto: "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate". Amen to that. A charismatic and enjoyable book (albeit a little rambling at times) – he’s funny, frank, wise, lacking in confidence and yet inwardly tough.
The Naming of Eliza Quinn (Carol Birch): This is our book group’s next book. Set in south-west Ireland (it was useful to have been there in Autumn 2010 to help invoke a sense of the area… and the rain!), it recounts a family saga spanning from 1840s (the days of potato famine and fever) to the late 1960s. Beautifully written and a really impressive, powerful book which, for me, certainly captured a desperate sense of rural Ireland in the nineteenth century and the inter-dependence of people, families, land, weather, crops, primitive housing and the hardness of life.
Blood on the Snow (Jan Bondeson): It’s about the assassination of Olof Palme in 1986, when he was the Swedish Prime Minister. He was fatally shot walking home from the cinema with his wife, close to midnight. The murderer still hasn’t been traced. The author castigates what he sees as the police’s pathetic, chaotic bundling and unprofessional approach in trying to solve the crime; he lambasts a number of key politicians and members of the police force. Bondeson is just one of several people who has studied the various conspiracy theories and reassessed the police investigation. It makes for fascinating reading and his arguments are convincingly made (albeit rather tediously so at times!) – but I ended up feeling that it had become an obsession for him and that he needed to take up watching cricket (or something) instead!

I’ve just checked through my 2011 “book blogs” (sad man that I am) and have been somewhat taken aback to discover that I’ve actually read a total of 56 books this year in total (ie. more than a book a week!). As someone whose reading habits used to be limited largely to holidays - perhaps 4 or 5 books a year - I find this new reading diversion a bit scary! Actually, it’s not altogether a new thing – according to the blog(!), I read 34 books in 2010. Think I’d better spend more time in the cinema, or whatever, over the coming months…
Because I very rarely read books when they are first published, my best five “books of the year” won’t be like anyone else’s list – most people (if they’ve read them at all) will probably have read them some time ago! Anyway, for what they’re worth, this is my shortlist:
1. Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
2. The Harold Nicholson Diaries 1907-1963 (edited by Nigel Nicholson)
3. Italian Shoes (Henning Mankell)*
4. The Wild Places (Robert Macfarlane)
5. AA Gill Is Away (AA Gill)

PS: you’ll note that only ONE of the above is fiction*!
PPS: I’ve been given some lovely new books for Christmas and am really looking forward to reading them over the coming months.

Monday, December 26, 2011

papa’s got a brand new bag

My old leather shoulder bag has been one of my fondest possessions. Ruth+Stu brought it back from India for me as a gift in 1999. It’s served me really well over the years but, latterly, has been well and truly feeling its age. It was given a brief reprieve/new lease of life about 18 months ago when some of the unraveling stitching was made good but, sadly, I’d come to realise that its days were numbered (in terms of regular usage).
Well, I’m now the proud owner of a shiny, new, blue shoulder bag (thanks to Moira, Ruth, Hannah, Alice et al) which will now become the “accessory of choice” on my daily jaunts… it’s even got my initials on it! Fancy or what?
Photo: old and new.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

coram boy

Moira+I continued our “live theatre fest” this afternoon by going to see the Bristol Old Vic’s “Coram Boy” at Colston Hall. It was a pretty ambitious venture – featuring a large cast (with lots of children) plus a full choir and large orchestra pumping out Handel’s “Messiah” (and Colston Hall is a massive venue)! Actually, this formula is a brilliant way of ensuring virtually full houses throughout the Christmas period – with relatives and friends of all the cast members apparently filling a lot of the seats! Moira had read the book, but I wasn’t familiar with the story. The background relates to Thomas Coram’s 18th century Foundling Hospital in London called the "Coram Hospital for Deserted Children"; unscrupulous men, known as "Coram men", frequently took advantage of the situation by promising desperate mothers to take their unwanted children to the hospital for a fee…
The audience duly acclaimed the performance (I did say that it largely comprised the cast’s aunties, uncles and school friends!). Actually, I was disappointed:
• I thought the acting was pretty basic in quality overall (from the professionals – I’ll excuse the younger members)
• The music was very good – but, to my mind, often got in the way of the dialogue (in fact, frequently playing OVER the dialogue) or simply over-dramatising events.
• To my mind, the design/concept seemed rather dated and also fairly basic in quality or originality (eg. plastic sheeting flapped to denote the wild sea) – although the lighting was pretty good.
But, hey, it’s Christmas so everything is forgiven (well, most things) and it was fantastic experience for all the young actors/singers!
PS: amazingly (and sadly), there was no “loop” system for those with hearing difficulties (I know this because Moira told me and the chap in front was VERY annoyed too!)… this seems ridiculous, especially when you’ve got a number of young actors with “thin” voices and the size of the auditorium).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

cinderella at the tobacco factory theatre

We used to have a family tradition of going to the cinema most Christmases. It probably didn’t happen every year but that’s how it now feels looking back. Since moving to Bristol, going to the Tobacco Factory Theatre at this time of year has DEFINITELY become the “new tradition” for Moira and me. We went along tonight to watch “Cinderella” – featuring the amazing “Travelling Light” theatre company (the same creative team behind “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” from a couple of Christmases ago and the Bristol Old Vic’s “Treasure Island” performed this summer).
It proved to be another wonderful evening. I’m conscious that I frequently end up describing our theatre trips as “magical” experiences and praising “live theatre” to the hilt – but, frankly for me, that’s exactly what it is. The all-age audience was simply charmed and totally engaged by the production – wonderful performances by each of the five actors, great music and lighting and beautifully designed in every detail. Stunning use of imagination, space and general creativity plus lots of laughter, fun, colour and pure enjoyment.
A superb start to the Christmas holidays!
PS: This was also a pretty “dark” version of the tale – birds in lieu of a fairy godmother and toes being hacked off with a cleaver!
PPS: Ruth+Stu took Iris to see the performance last week (Iris was completely captivated by it) and Hannah+Felix went to see it last Saturday (just a few hours before Ursula was born!). They, like Moira+I, ALL had a brilliant time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

ursula olive hayes

Moira+I have just spent a magical afternoon with Hannah+Felix and their brand new daughter, Ursula Olive (born at 5.30pm on Sunday 18 December). It was lovely just to sit in front of the wood-burner, catch up on the events of the weekend and, of course, enjoy long, contented cuddles with our granddaughter (Hannah+Felix were in good form too!).
Photo: Miss Ursula Olive Hayes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

99 words...

I quite often find myself listening to the excellent Radio4 programme “Something Understood”. Last Sunday and this morning, it has consisted of a pair of programmes which deal with the question: “if you had breath for no more than 99 words, what would they be?”. It’s presented by Liz Gray, who had found herself limited, forced into a strange period of enforced retreat by a whiplash injury and this was the question that had come to her mind. She began asking friends, colleagues, artists and political figures she admired, and gathered together a collection of 99 responses which has recently been published. I think I need to get myself a copy.
They also make fascinating and beautiful radio programmes.
PS: today is the last day you can listen to last week’s episode.

Friday, December 16, 2011

this interim time...

Our lovely friends Gail+Ian run a fascinating and inspiring project they call “see:change”.
On its facebook page this morning, at this time of “waiting” in the Christian tradition, they posted these beautiful words by John O’Donohue: “In the waiting time 'we are in a time where everything seems withheld. The path we took to get us here has washed out; the way forward is still concealed from us. The old is not old enough to have died away; the new is still too young to be born'. For the interim time…”
Like a lot of people, I’ve often used this period of Advent and the turn of the year as a time for reflection – both thinking back and looking forward.
About this time last year, when I was working in a secondary school, I was suddenly asked if I could take a House Assembly. It was a case of filling in for someone at the eleventh hour; I had virtually no time to prepare anything.
I ended up telling pupils something about my blog (yes, I was that desperate!) – and explained that it was a mixture of diary of things I’d done and observations of political, social issues of the time. Only a couple of days earlier, I’d been looking up my comments on a film I’d seen at the very start of the previous year and ended up skim-reading through the blog over the subsequent twelve month period… and been really struck at the wealth of (sometimes quite surprising) things in which I’d been involved. As a result, it had made me ask myself the rhetorical question: “I wonder what new experiences/events lie in front of me for the coming year?”. So that became the theme of my assembly – looking forward with a sense of anticipation (and even genuine excitement) at what lies ahead for each of us.
I’m well aware that for some people, the coming months will involve financial/employment uncertainty or broken relationships or, in some case, utter despair… and I’m certainly not underestimating how debilitating and painful these can be.
However, I DO find it exciting knowing that, even if/when there are periods of gloom, there WILL be things that fill me with joy that, at present, I know NOTHING about.
For instance:
• A wonderful book
• A great film
• A brilliant piece of live performance (theatre/concert)
• A stunning sporting moment
• Unexpected meetings with old and new friends

• New hobbies or pastimes
• Simple pleasures
• Something yet to be created
• Experiencing new places
• Spiritual discoveries
• Reconciliation
• Taking pleasure in seeing others grow and develop
• Learning something new
For me, O’Donohue’s words “the path we took to get us here has washed out; the way forward is still concealed from us” capture this interim time perfectly.
Photo: sunrise over Glastonbury.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

mary portas: saviour of the high street?

I’ve just finished reading Mary Portas’s 50-page independent review into the future of our high streets. She’s obviously a very astute businesswoman and the government would do well to adopt many of her ideas and recommendations.
As you might guess (if you've ever read any of my previous posts on the subject), I was particularly interested in what she had to say about supermarkets!
She DID make a number of pertinent observations on the subject, for example:
• The fact is that the major supermarkets and malls have delivered highly convenient, needs-based retailing, which serves today’s consumers well. Sadly the high streets didn’t adapt as quickly or as well.
• She recommended that the restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system should be addressed to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street.
• Large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers.
• What really worries me is that the big supermarkets don’t just sell food anymore, but all manner of things that people used to buy on the high street. They’ve been expanding their reach into homewares, stationery, books, flowers – you name it. Supermarkets now allocate more than one third of their floor space to non-food sales.
• These critical high street and town centre services must not be simply gobbled up by the major supermarkets.
• Change on our high streets will come from people not just policies. Charismatic, local people with a vested interest in protecting their town centres and revitalising their communities will, if empowered to do so, inevitably lead the charge for change.
• We are burying our heads in the sand about the social and economic impact. A pound spent in a retailer with a localised supply chain that employs local people has far greater domestic economic impact than a pound spent in a supermarket or national chain. What’s more, out-of-town developments are often presented as major new sources of employment but we need to recognise that this ‘job creation’ is often just job displacement.
• We need to put the heart back into our high streets and inspire that connection between local people and their ‘home town’. Localism must truly mean local people having a voice and influence.
• The planning system is too susceptible to those who can afford an army of lawyers and the costs can put off those with legitimate appeals, as a recent study found out. There seems to be an imbalance in the planning system which we need to address.
• We should be getting local people engaged early in the planning process and able to influence the future of their areas. I’ve heard too many examples of communities being against a big development but it going ahead anyway. People need a powerful, legitimate voice and planning needs to be a much more collaborative process than it has been to date. The Government, working alongside the big developers, should explore how the local community can be given sufficient support and a stronger voice in the planning system.

Disappointingly, her review also contained some sweeping statements that seemed to miss the point, such as:
There should be an explicit presumption in favour of town centre development in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework (that’s obviously not going to discourage supermarkets in any way!).
Developers should make a financial contribution to ensure that the local community has a strong voice in the planning system (this smacks of blackmail money being paid out by supermarkets to secure planning permissions – oh, don’t they do this already?).
In the main, I felt that Portas merely acknowledged the “supermarket problem” and actually failed to address the key issues:
• Unless planning policies are changed, supermarkets will happily continue to take over our high streets.
• It’s all very well saying that “charismatic, local people with a vested interest in protecting their town centres and revitalising their communities will, if empowered to do so, inevitably lead the charge for change” but, sadly, we know from our own local experience that council planning committees are influenced by big business and NOT by town planning guidelines, local needs or community action.
Portas’s report included the following telling comment from “The Right to Retail: Can localism save Britain’s small retailers?” by A Schoenborn:
“The majority of shopkeepers polled felt that they had an unfair disadvantage in comparison with major supermarkets in the planning system. In this, they echo a view held by many communities and activist groups that have struggled to exert control of their local high streets. Concerns include that the resources available to major retailers make it significantly harder for local authorities to challenge submissions by supermarkets for planning permission, compared with smaller retailers. Particularly, local authorities’ decisions may be influenced by a cost-benefit assessment on the basis that supermarkets are able to fund costly appeals against refusals and claim costs if they win, or resubmit modified versions of refused applications. Better resourcing also allows major developers to exploit legal loopholes in land usage, offer local authorities “sweeteners” in exchange for planning permission or bypass planning objections by funding major developments.”
I think the government should be commended for commissioning this report – and Mary Portas, with her “tell-it-like-it-is” attitude, was an excellent choice as its author. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think it contains enough “clout” against the power of the “big retailers” (and big business in general)… and, we all know, that the government is therefore hardly likely to take it upon itself to crack down on such organisations.
Who knows, I might be proved wrong!

Monday, December 12, 2011

is there life after west wing?

As for most things it seems, I was late in “discover” West Wing and didn’t actually start watching it until January 2008. Since that time, I’ve become completely hooked. Last night, I watched the last episode of the very last season of West Wing and, in doing so, realised that I was about to enter a state of “mourning” (rather like getting to the end of a very good book). I’ve SO enjoyed the programme – brilliantly executed and with a wonderful script and cast. Although it was all fictitious (obviously!), it seemed to place an emphasis on the positives in the world of politics – it made you want your own politicians to behave like the main characters in the series (well, most of the time anyway!). It was utterly convincing and believable – both the individuals and the situations – and (somewhat pathetically, I know) I did find myself close to tears from time to time! I can’t actually recall anything about the programme that I disliked.
My favourite “bits” invariably involved the conversations between White House staff as they strode along the “corridors of power” exchanging questions, ideas, insights, observations and answers at rat-a-tat-tat speed – giving the impression of needle-sharp minds, spontaneous wit and wonderful wisdom – EXACTLY as I aspire to be at all times, you understand! In particular, I loved the “CJ” character (CJ Cregg played by the wonderful Allison Janney)… and have frequently pledged that “I want to be CJ when I grow up” (in ability, character, intellect etc etc!).
After this, all other television is going feel very ordinary!
PS: In anticipation of my after-West Wing “numbness”, I have been watching “The Killing” (Series 2) – on the advice of a number of friends. In my opinion, although it’s not at all in the same league as WW, it is a very impressive programme (I think there are still four episodes to go?)… and I’ve now also borrowed the Series 1 boxset too from Hannah+Felix.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

european union (think the clue’s in the title)

Where does one start?
The right wing press have hailed Cameron’s veto to block a new EU-wide treaty as a Triumph (oh what a surprise). Similarly, he will receive a hero’s welcome in parliament on Monday from right wing Tories.
In truth, Cameron’s actions at the EU summit hardly came as a shock – as far as I was concerned, he’d been making all the wrong kind of noises long before he departed for Brussels. It’s just that I’d hoped for a minor miracle – which never came. Reassuringly(!), I note that Chancellor George Osborne says that the PM’s actions were "very refreshing" and has insisted that Britain will still play a central role in Europe. He must live in cloud cuckoo land.
A few thoughts:
1. At a time that called for international statesmanship, Cameron’s actions, in the early hours of Friday morning, were almost exclusively focused on domestic politics – with pressure from perhaps 80 Tory MPs helping to dictate the UK’s current predicament.
2. I suspect that the PM felt that his veto would avoid a future referendum (which, reasonably, he judged he would lose). Actually, Euro-sceptics - such as Bill Cash - appear to think that the situation demands a fundamental renegotiation of the treaty and that “that, in due course, will also require a referendum”.
3. The PM no doubt believes that his actions will help to protect the City of London’s best interests (oh, and his rich pals - including a few high-flying bankers). If I was leader of one of the other 26 EU nations, I think I’d be so cheesed off with Britain that I’d insist on avoiding financial business with the City as far as possible. The UK could miss out altogether on future bank talks. I somehow think that what Cameron regards as “defending the interests of the City” might prove only temporary.
4. Britain SHOULD be a leading player in Europe, but it isn’t. The Guardian aptly describes it thus: “The two-speed Europe is here, with the UK alone in the slow lane”.
5. It all feels as if the government still thinks we have an Empire. In many ways, the UK government will be hoping that it “all goes wrong” for the EU – so it can say “we told you so”. I suspect that the next year or so will indeed be very difficult (both economically and politically) for the EU. Whilst I don’t want UK citizens to suffer in the current financial turmoil, it would be gratifying if the EU had started to emerge from the economic gloom before the next General Election (perhaps ahead of the UK)… it would be enormously gratifying!
6. And what about the LibDems? You remember the LibDems – those pledges about student fees and their pro-Europe stance (and all that bull about the need for us “to be there at the table”)? It seems that if the LibDems pledge anything, you might as well just assume the opposite.
7. No one is saying that the situation within the EU isn’t incredibly complicated and dire – but the fact was that we (ie. the UK) were members of the EU team, but refused to act like team players (we seemed to have walked off the pitch in a sulk?). You might have felt that the slogan SHOULD have been: “we’re all in this together” (where have I heard this before?)… but it wasn’t. Britain is now isolated and friendless as far as the EU is concerned… and, from now on (whatever Osborne says) it won’t be able to influence the debate.
That must surely be bad for Europe and, most definitely, bad for Britain?
Photo: “It wasn’t me guv”.