Tuesday, December 31, 2013

new year reflections

For the past two years, I’ve posted something along these lines as we approach a new year: about how experience tells me 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.
I just LOVE that this happens every year.
So, true to form, I’ve used more or less the same headings to reflect on my personal memories of 2013 (and thoughts about 2014):
My top five (note: I’ve really been spoilt for choice this year – my SHORTlist was 16 books long!!):
Leaving Alexandria (Richard Holloway); The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot); HHhH (Laurent Binet); The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce); The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (Jonas Jonasson).
My top five (again, in vague order – although we didn’t get to the cinema all that often): Le Week-end; A Late Quartet; Amour; Blue Jasmine; Frances Ha.
LOVELY LIVE PERFORMANCES (broken down into various categories):

My top five: The Count of Monte Cristo (Brewery Theatre); Great Expectations (Bristol Old Vic); The Boy Who Cried Wolf (Old Vic, Bristol); Midsummer Night’s Dream (streamed)(RSC, Stratford); The Last Five Years (Brewery Theatre, Bristol).
Karine Polwart (St George’s, Bristol); Martha Tilston (Colston Hall, Bristol); King Creosote (Colston Hall); Exultate Singers (St James Priory) and the Gasworks Choir (St George’s); Gavin Osborn (Colston Hall); Daisy Chapman (Arnos Vale Cemetery); O’Hooley+Tidow (Bristol Folk House); Martin Simpson (Colston Hall).

Grommit(!!)(Bristol etc); Drawn Exhibition 2013 (RWA, Bristol); Pre-Raphaelites (Tate Britain)… sorry, not very many, is it?


I’ve been pathetically lazy when it comes to sport over the past year… I think the only “live” sport I saw was the final day of the cricket season (Gloucestershire v Lancashire). As usual, I’ve enjoyed watching the Six Nations and the Autumn Rugby Internationals on TV… but it’s not really the same. MUST do better!
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 wonderful to re-visit Drimnin in the western highlands
again with Bob+Christine; very special to go back to Iona again (albeit very briefly) and meet up with some of my much-loved friends from the Iona Community; also great to meet up with Karen and Tereza (from the Iona Community) in Bristol; and Dick+Dientje (from Holland); and Nick+Christine after so many years! 
I’ve very much enjoyed continuing to post a drawing or photograph every day as part of my “One Day Like This” blog (something like 240 drawings and 240 photographs thus far!); producing some large elevation drawings for Alan+Lesley was also really enjoyable (once I’d got my head around it!)… two down, one to go! I was delighted to have a large drawing accepted for the “Drawn” exhibition at the RWA in the Spring (and even more surprised and excited that it actually sold – and very quickly too!). It was good to have some of my drawings for sale in the “Made in Britain” and “Christmas Design Temporium” shops during the course of November/December… and I enjoyed being a shop assistant again (all that Iona bookshop experience!) in the CDT shop.
Cafes, reading, drawing, photography, walking, living near the sea (well, sort of… and with relatively easy access to Devon and Cornwall – especially Kingsbridge and St Ives) and, of course, looking after grandchildren!

I produced a photobook: “One Year Like This” in October. Challenges for this coming year? Well, who knows, trying to come up with something to submit (and, almost certainly, rejected!) for the RWA’s Autumn Exhibition? Also, the wonderful Si Smith has invited me to contribute something for an Advent 2014 project, which sounds quite exciting.

We’re talking about perhaps visiting Holland during the course of 2014 (and to meet up with our lovely friends
I’ve been attending Quakers meetings pretty regularly through the year and, although this has proved helpful, illuminating and fulfilling in many ways, I’ve now decided to try to follow a different path (I’m not quite sure what this is or where it will take me)… another year of spiritual plodding perhaps?

1. I think I’d like to do something to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. 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. Like many others, he joined up under age (he was 17 – the minimum qualifying age was 19). He entered the Theatre of War in France/Belgium on 19 August 1914, just a fortnight after Britain had declared war on Germany. A few years ago, I compiled a
blog which traced his movements throughout the war years… and would quite like to visit one or two of the key battle sites at some stage.

2. I continue to take huge pleasure in seeing others grow and develop: loving seeing our daughters creating beautiful work (Ruth’s jewellery and prints; Hannah’s posters and other projects; Alice’s writing and forthcoming book); and watching all our grandchildren learn new things.
3. As you probably know, I’m not a keen TV-watcher, but I have enjoyed “Borgen” enormously.

4. The beautiful summer weather was a brilliant bonus.
1. My right hip/knee/leg continues to cause me problems… physiotherapy did very little (if anything) to ease the situation. I’m due to make an appointment with our local surgery in the new year (a standard “free health check” for people of my age!) and so this will be one of the issues for discussion. I’m conscious that, these days, I hobble about like an “old man”.

2. It’s very sad that I haven’t played golf for nearly 18 months (because of my hip/knee/leg). 
But it’s actually been another very good year… and we continue to count our blessings.
Photo: sign at the Fish Café, Tobermory

Monday, December 30, 2013

november-december books

More book stuff:
Somewhat amazingly (well, it’s amazing for me at least!), this is the third year running that I’ve read a book a week throughout the year (yes, I realise I’m the only one counting but: 55 this year, 55 in 2012 and 56 in 2011)!
The Vagrant Mood (W Somerset Maughan): A varied and colourful collection of essays first published in 1952 – on such wide-ranging subjects as Kant, Burke, Augustus Hare, Raymond Chandler and the art of the detective story! I don’t think I’d previously read anything by Maughan and was pleasantly surprised… he’s easy to read and portrays himself as intimate and straightforward (which was probably not the case!).
Thirty Nine New Articles (Martyn Percy): I was sent this book by the author himself (he’s the Principal of Rippon College, Cuddesdon – where students are trained for ordained ministry in the Anglican Church) as a thank-you for a sketch I’d made of the college, which was passed on to him by a friend. Inspired by the original Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, the Church of England's historic statement of belief, it explores thirty-nine beliefs and practices that characterise Anglicanism today and the issues it grapples with (the new book actually contains 42 articles!). Despite the fact that I “left” the Anglican Church (following its continuing failure to recognise women bishops), I found it to be a very wise, hopeful and encouraging book.
There’s No Home (Alexander Baron): This is a war novel, set in WW2, but isn’t a story of war. It’s set in 1943, in a lull in the fighting, after the allied invasion of Sicily. A British battalion marches into a bombed out city to be met by the women, children and old men. Now seems exploitative, sexist and, in many ways, unreal… but an unusual and powerful story nonetheless. First published in 1950 and apparently “semi-autobiographical” (Baron was a “sapper” and witnessed some of the horrific fighting in Sicily and D-Day landings).
Unapologetic (Francis Spufford): Refreshing… and certainly not like any other book I’ve ever read about faith - even though, at times, he irritated me hugely and I longed for him to stop ranting or for his editor to have had a firmer hand (he apparently did no research for the book and wrote at least some of it rapidly in a Cambridge café - which probably explains why it has such a raw, unedited, in-your-face quality). In the book, he attempts to describe what it feels like to go on believing when you know and have experienced all that can be said against faith. He freely admits that he doesn't know if there is a god…"and neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being… a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if he's there, to dare the conditionality."  I found Spufford’s book both challenging and stimulating (and, frankly at times, also pretty tedious!), but I didn’t really warm to him as an individual and suspect that, if I met him for a chat in his Cambridge café, I wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgeways!
Down and Out in Paris and London (George Orwell): Fictional, but apparently part autobiographical, account of a penniless writer among the down-and-outs in a) Paris: working in appalling conditions as a dishwasher/plongeur in posh French restaurants, and b) London: experiencing the world of tramps, street people and free lodging houses while awaiting a job. Written in the early 1930s, it’s a sobering tale of the effects of abject poverty, hopelessness and survival. One for Iain Duncan Smith’s new year reading list perhaps?

Friday, December 27, 2013

three cane whale and bristol kitchen radio…

It’s coming up to the end of the year and, as usual, I’ve been in reflection mode.
One of the things I did, as a result of this, was to post (on facebook) a list of ten new pieces of music that I’ve come across during the course of 2013 and “Sluice” (by Three Cane Whale) was one of my featured songs. I’d never actually come across Three Cane Whale until very recently, but they had featured on a playlist I regularly listened to while working in a pop-up shop at The Architecture Centre in November/December… and I simply loved their music. Within a matter of minutes of posting my list, a good friend of mine Mark Loudon (who used to live in Bristol… and now lives in Liverpool) had posted the following message: So glad you like Three Cane Whale. My dear old friend Paul Bradley is one of the three. You should listen to the amazing Bristol Kitchen Radio podcast which he and his fabulous wife Ellen Hughes do from their house in Redlands. Always featured an improvised song or two from Paul”… and he gave me this link.
Well, I’ve now followed Mark’s advice: a) Bristol Kitchen Radio is just brilliant (I’ve listened to lots of their excellent, entertaining podcasts – which makes Radio 4 look pretty ordinary!) and b) Three Cane Whale are appearing at St George’s on 23 January… and I’ve just bought a ticket!
It’s a very small world… and the internet is wonderful!
Photo: from Bristol Kitchen Radio’s blog (I hope they don’t mind!)

Monday, December 16, 2013

exultate singers and gasworks choir

Moira+I have enjoyed a wonderful weekend of stunning music.
On Saturday night, we went with Alan+Gareth to hear the exquisite Exultate Singers at St James Priory. Like last year, it was another sell-out performance and, like last year, it was just brilliant. Yesterday afternoon, Moira+I went to St George’s to see/hear the brilliant Gasworks Choir (the vibrant red/orange costumes are definitely an integral part of the performance experience!)(Gareth is a member)… and again, like last year, they were superb.
For us, these concerts are now very much part of our traditional build-up to the Christmas.
Photo: Exultate Singers (top, courtesy of their website) and Gasworks Choir (bottom: featuring conductors/arrangers Dee+Ali in their farewell tribute duet to Dee, after some 16 years).

Saturday, December 14, 2013


I went to see Alexander Payne's “Nebraska” yesterday. It's essentially a road movie - with the excellent Bruce Dern as Woody, a fragile old man suffering from dementia insistent on collecting millions from a marketing scam letter (we’ve all received them!). He’s determined to make his way to collect his winnings in person and his youngest son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to take him on the 800km road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska.
It’s a brilliantly-observed dark comedy about America's classic mid-West culture. It’s a gentle, poignant, sometimes grim film about a man who’s lost his self-respect and a story of unlikely re-connection as David sees his father’s doomed quest as a chance for them to spend time together while they still can.
I loved it.
PS: some very good films on at the Watershed, Bristol over the Christmas/New Year period: Philomena 20-23 Dec; Gravity 20 Dec-2 Jan; It’s a Wonderful Life 20 Dec-2 Jan.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

gavin osborn

Went to see and hear the brilliant Gavin Osborn play a free concert in the Colston Hall foyer last night. It’s ridiculous that he’s not playing to much larger audiences as he’s SO talented. Daughter Hannah gave me his CD, “Come On Folks, Settle Down”, about a year ago (she designed the CD cover!) and I absolutely love it… and play it constantly. His music is both poignant and amusing and deals with some of the little (and important) things in life.
Among my favourite songs are: “Finding Time”, “An Orchestrated Break Up” or “The World Is At Your Feet, Little Man”… but, as an aging hippie myself(?), I particularly like “Albert Went Out To See Rock Bands” (Albert is the 77 year-old hero of the song!). It always makes me smile…
His CD would make a wonderful Christmas present!
Photo: Gavin at the Colston Hall foyer last night

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

christmas design temporium

This is the rather grand name given for the pop-up shop at The Architecture Centre over the next few weeks. I’ve got some of my drawings on sale there… alongside beautiful stuff from Ruth+Hannah and some other amazing, talented artists. I’ll also be manning the shop from time to time and just hope I can work out the technology and the various shop systems (friends who remember my lovely Iona bookshop experiences will no doubt recall that I’m pretty good on the customer service/smiling/friendly word bit and not so hot on the technology!). Fingers crossed!
It’s a lovely place to work – looking out across the harbourside (like my previous harbourside market experiences – pretty cold with the door open all day BUT at least we're protected from the rain and wind!).
I know that, from comments I’ve already received from customers, that there seem to be an awful lot of Bristolians who are delighted to see a shop  return to The Architecture Centre (I think the regular shop there closed some two or three years ago).
By comparison with all the other work in the shop, I feel a bit of a fraud - my drawings are just a hobby, everybody else’s work represents something far more significant. The other artists RELY on being able to sell their art in order to make a living and we all know how difficult that is in the present financial climate!
The quality of the other work on sale and the industry, enthusiasm, inventiveness, humour, determination of the artists is, frankly, rather humbling.
Photo: shop entrance… showing some of Ruth’s and Hannah’s work

Sunday, November 17, 2013

New Birmingham Library

I had the opportunity to visit Birmingham’s new £189million library last Friday.
From the onset, having had brief glimpses of the building emerging during the construction period, I’ve had very real reservations about its external appearance… perhaps this has something to do with a certain amount of resentment that the new building has sadly replaced the Central Library, opened in 1974 (and the fact that I had worked for The John Madin Design Group in the very early 1970s at the time the Practice was designing that building)?
The external appearance is a series of interlocking metal rings set around gold cladding and vast walls of glass… for me, the following three competing images come to mind:
a)    “well, we had a whole load of Olympic rings left over after last year and it seemed such a shame to throw them away…”
b)    as above, but substitute “Christmas street decorations” for “Olympic rings”…
c)     melted/spun sugar decorations applied to buildings.
I’ve subsequently seen its external appearance described as a “decorative box”, “three mattresses with a roll of duct tape stuck on the top” and The Observer’s Rowan Moore reckons its appearance “the goldy-glittery exterior is a bit Vegas, but it stays this side of trashiness. The interior of atrium and escalators could be like a shopping mall, but it isn't” - so I’m clearly not the only one who remains a little sceptical… although I’m afraid I DO find the exterior rather “tacky”.
Architect Francine Houben, of Dutch studio Mecanoo, cites “gasometers” as the inspiration for its hoops and claims that “the 5,357 circles on the outside frieze of the building reflect the city's industrial heritage - the craftsmanship, the factories, the canals, the jewellery quarter…”.
Frankly, I’m not convinced and feel that such descriptions are contrived and arbitrary, at best.
Having said all this, I WAS impressed by the building’s interior. Atriums, escalators and landscaped terraces are key features. The spaces are exciting and colourful… and it certainly encourages visitors to explore (and the external hooped decorations work much better when viewed from the inside!).
Photo:  Building frontage viewed from the basement lightwell.
PS: With the anticipated huge number of visitors, the passenger lifts (providing access to the roof terraces and the Shakespeare Memorial Library) seem inadequate in terms of both number and size.

Monday, November 11, 2013

TED talks in bristol

Moira+I spent today at Colston Hall listening to some 16 speakers (and six previously-recorded TED talks from around the world) on the subject of “Failure”. I must stress here that we didn’t attend because we thought we were failures… (of course not!).
Although it proved to be a fascinating and interesting day, we both came away feeling rather disappointed. I had watched several TED talks on-line and had invariably been highly impressed. Yes, I realise that the majority of those high-calibre speakers will probably have been well paid for their efforts and that this Bristol version inevitably showcased a range of rather more local, not-so-well-known contributors, but it was all something of a disappointment.
There were certainly SOME original and entertaining speakers (eg. Paul Archer’s around-the-world-in-a-black-cab talk and Sophie Mather’s passionate presentation on sustainable textiles) but, overall, we came away feeling a little tired of the much-repeated message of “failure breeds success” from entrepreneurs, life gurus and people who simply seemed to be there to promote their own businesses in one form or another…  as Moira observed “failure can be more subtle than that”! It also seemed geared towards a scientific and/or technological audience (actually, that’s probably a little unfair!). In our view, none of the speakers had impressed us as much as any of the “Bristol Festival of Ideas” talks we’d attended (eg. Richard Holloway or Julia Unwin).
There were, however, a number of plus points: a) we only paid a concessionary rate of £10 for an entire day’s talks, and b) the event attracted a wide age range, particularly from 20-30 age group.  
A good day… but one that didn’t quite live up to our expectations.
Photo: the Bristol TED talk stage.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

october-november 2013 books

More book stuff:
Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell): This is a truly remarkable book. It’s a work of exceptional imagination and insight which (in critic Justine Jordan’s words) “knits together science fiction, political thriller and historical pastiche with musical virtuosity and linguistic exuberance”. It encompasses six interlocking lives in a story that takes readers on a rollercoaster ride from the C19th to a post-apocalyptic future. The trip is exhausting (the book is 529 pages long!), exhilarating… but well worth it!
Suspicious Packages and Extendable Arms (Tim Dowling): Published in 2007 and consists of articles that have previously appeared in the Guardian. He’s certainly got a wonderful “way with words” and I do find him very funny (mostly) but, have to say, I prefer his more recent stuff (he has a weekly column the Guardian Weekend) – where he’s fast becoming a grumpy old man… just like me (except that he’s only 50)! 
The Village against the World (Dan Hancox): I’ve previously blogged about Hancox’s experiences of the village (Marinaleda) and village life, now I’ve read the book! It’s the story of this small, remote, Andalusian village’s fight against poverty, over the past 30 years or so, to create a communist/communitarian (is that a word?) utopia. Fascinating, inspiring, passionate, sad and thought-provoking.
The Story of Forgetting (Stefan Merrill Block): This is a fascinating novel about the very early onset of Alzheimer’s disease (the author’s grandmother had the condition). Somewhat amazingly, Block was only 26 when he wrote it. Despite the poignancy of the subject, Block’s story is also one of hope and optimism. It’s a wonderful informative, inventive and intelligent book which I enjoyed very much.
Jane and Prudence (Barbara Pym): This is our Book Group’s latest book and one the joys/challenges of belonging to such a group is that you get to read books you perhaps wouldn’t normally choose to read. Fortunately (for me), this year has provided some excellent book choices… unfortunately, this was definitely NOT one of them! Pym paints a picture of middle-class life in England in the early 1950s (far removed from my own working-class childhood experiences of that period!). It felt as if I was reading a Jane Austin novel that had been re-set to take place in a Miss Marple television film set. The focus seems to be all about women being able to find a suitable husband and concerns (in this time of food rationing) that men should be provided with enough meat! Having said that, it was interesting (and depressing) to be reminded of a time when women (even Oxford graduates) were largely discounted when it came to work and politics. It was a very easy book to read but, frankly, I found it pretty pointless and light-weight (and, dare I say it, not a “man’s book”!!). I think (out of respect for the person who chose the book) I’m just going to have to bite my tongue when it comes to our next book group meeting… or make my apologies!
PS: I’ve just looked up some “goodread” reviews and it seems that I’m clearly in a minority… everyone else seemed to LOVE it (and Jilly Cooper apparently reckons it was Pym’s finest work!)… give me strength!

Friday, November 08, 2013

karine polwart… again

Moira+I went along to St George’s Bristol on Wednesday to hear Karine Polwart perform (alongside her talented guitarist brother Steven and accordionist/percussionist Inge). I think this was the sixth time I’ve been to one of her concerts and, as you might imagine, I’m a huge fan!
It proved to be another stunning evening – powerful, intelligent, thought-provoking, political, beautiful, poignant music at its very best (the programme blurb also included the following: “tenderness, triumph and sorrow, raised flags of rebellion and independence, flashes of anger at power abused and misused” and “perhaps, most frequently, she deals in spare, unsentimental empathy, often with those who have been dealt with the least playable hands in the game of life”).
I’ve been feeling very disenchanted by politics (and politicians in general) recently and made a comment on facebook about wanting Stephen Fry to be leading the country instead. Well, I came away from the concert thinking that I’d like Karine Polwart to be a leading member of his Cabinet!

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Moira+I went to the Tobacco Factory Theatre last night to see Dawn King’s “Ciphers” – a play accurately described in the blurb as a “provocative thriller about spies, double agents, and the opaqueness of the human soul”.
It was excellent – with first-class performances from all members of a talented cast.
One of the bonuses for us was being able to get together again with our good friend, Bruce Alexander (well known to many as Supt Mullet in TV’s “A Touch of Frost”), from our Thame days in Oxfordshire.
Highly recommended (but you’ll have to be quick though – it moves on to the Oxford Playhouse after this Saturday’s performance).
PS: Bruce’s son Sam (also an incredibly talented actor), stayed with us last year while he was performing in “Wild Oats” at Bristol’s Old Vic.

the curse of the activity monitor?

I’m never ill… well, not until this past week, that was.
Over the past few days, I’ve been feeling distinctly under-par and have even resorted to spending several daylight hours in my bed (I know!).
This has all coincided with me agreeing to wear one of BioBank’s (I’m one of many volunteers helping them to “improve the health of future generations”) activity monitors for a week - starting last Wednesday. I’m normally pretty active and consider myself to be reasonably fit (perhaps debatable with my gammy hip!?), so my sudden decline in health does seem a little mystifying.
The BioBank people will no doubt be thinking they’re dealing with a couch potato… and will be urging me to do more exercise!
Could it be down to the “curse of activity monitor”, I wonder?
Well, who knows (only kidding!)… BUT, yesterday was my last “monitor day” and the gadget is now being posted back to those lovely people at BioBank… and , do you know, I’m feeling as if I’m actually getting back to full health!
Photo: the aforementioned activity monitor…
PS: the mystery deepens… could the activity monitor affect laptops, I ask myself? During the course of the BioBank monitoring week, my laptop also died (now recovered, thankfully)… unconnected, obviously!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

royal mail

I was completely opposed to the privatisation of the Royal Mail.
Today, Vince Cable is due to appear before Parliament’s “Business, Innovation and Skills Committee”(!). The battle’s lost and so, for the most of the public, it’ll only be of academic interest… at best.
However, it will be interesting to hear his take on the following:
1.       His justification for seriously under-selling the Royal Mail (floated at 330p, compared with last Friday’s level of 555p… and expected to reach 570p in a year’s time)?
2.       The justification for the fund management arms of some of the banks advising on the float receiving a combined 13m shares? If advisers on selling Royal Mail know that colleagues are buyers, what incentive is there to price the shares at the maximum price? SURELY, there’s a conflict of interest? Current profit on 13m shares stands at some £29million! Ridiculous. Scandalous.
Rip-off Britain?
You bet.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

marinaleda: the village against the world

This is the title of a book by journalist Dan Hancox and I went along to Foyles Bookshop last night to hear him talk about the place, the people and, obviously, his book… as part of the excellent Bristol Festival of Ideas. I was intrigued/encouraged to attend after reading an article he’d written in the Guardian (highlighted by my mate Jon).
Marinaleda is a small, remote village in Andalusia which has become acclaimed by many as "a communist utopia". It started in the late 1970s from a position of abject poverty (with more than 60% unemployment) - a farming community with no land. Led by its charismatic mayor, Sanchez Gordillo (who has been re-elected at every election since that time), the village has, somehow, succeeded - through sacrifice and determination. In 1985, Sánchez Gordillo told the newspaper El País: "We have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word 'peace '. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present”.
It proved to be a highly-stimulating evening – half an hour of him talking followed by 30 minutes or so of questions+answers from the audience.
Absolutely fascinating.
Photo: Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, the village’s long-standing, charismatic mayor.
PS: the audience was probably bigger than the one that had turned up at the Old Vic the previous night!
PPS: The one negative aspect of the evening was the T-shirted bloke sitting immediately in front of me… who had AWFUL body odour!!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

great expectations

Moira+I went to the Old Vic last night to see Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. Having read glowing reviews about the play, Moira did indeed have great expectations (I just felt dog-tired!). Fortunately (for us both), it WAS very good evening. The acting was of a consistently high standard – I was particularly taken by Tom Canton’s performance as Pip (who was on stage throughout the evening) – but, for me, the most impressive aspect of the production was the overall design, sound and lighting (Michael Vale, Timothy X Atack and Rick Fisher).
The Old Vic programme described it as “an evening of pure theatrical story-telling”… and I think this just about sums up an excellent production.
PS: the one sad aspect of the evening was the relatively sparse audience – perhaps only 60, if one discounted a party of some 20 college students.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

le week-end

Gareth, Alan, Moira+I did NOT go to Paris for the weekend, but we did see Roger Mitchell’s film, Le Week-End, at the Watershed… which featured a weekend in Paris. It’s a film about a couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan are superb) who are revisiting Paris for the first time since their honeymoon, 30 years ago… and it explores the ups and downs of love in later life and, in this case, what one might describe as a “sagging marriage” (although I might be prepared to argue that point).
It’s funny, it’s poignant and, by the reaction of the audience (the majority of whom could closely identify with the film’s theme), it addressed some rather familiar “challenges” of (very) long-term relationships.
I’ve just read Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian – which contained the following description: Le Week-End is about an interesting subject, a subject that is the elephant in the living room – or rather the elephant on the Saga holiday, the elephant on the grey-pound world cruise, the elephant thoughtfully sucking the Werther's Original – and that is the emotional and sexual lives of old or older people, who generally don't get to appear much on movies or television. Meg and Nick are finding that as they get older, mother nature has played a cruel trick on them. As well as the persistent twinges and pains and agonies of physical decay, they find that they are still poignantly interested in life, interested enough to yearn for more, and to be therefore intensely dissatisfied with themselves and with each other as time runs out, and to find they are still sufficiently compos mentis for this to be almost intolerably painful”.
I have to say, I found it a more hopeful film than Bradshaw obviously did - although, after watching a trailer a week or so back, I wasn’t all that keen to see Le Week-End (I felt there was a danger I was going to be encouraged to dance in bars… or whatever! Perish the thought!).
In the event, I really enjoyed the film and, although it contained some rather mystifying minor plot issues, came away with a smile on my face… and Paris DID look lovely!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

september-october 2013 books

More book stuff:
A Perfectly Good Man (Patrick Gale): The story deals with the interwoven lives of the inhabitants of a Cornish village and I liked the way it was put together as a series of snapshots, in no particular order, of the various characters (eg. “Lenny at 20”, “Dorothy at 24”). This is a sincere and well-constructed story (and it’s very readable) but, for me, it was all a bit “too-good-to-be-true” and frequently found myself thinking “don’t-tell-me-such-and-such-is-going-to-happen-next” and, sure enough…
Until relatively recently, I used to avoid reading fiction… all too often I ended up finding the process frustrating… or too predictable… or too absurd… or some of the writing style… or the author trying too hard to demonstrate that he/she had done their research… or it left me feeling “what was the point?”. I feel sure that most readers will like the book… but I’m afraid it just reminded me of the reasons I didn’t like reading fiction!
Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary (Rebecca Brown): This might seem like a very strange book to be reading! I bought it at the £2 bookshop and had been intrigued… Brown’s mother became ill with cancer in 1996 and, in 17 short chapters, records the slow, incremental erosion of her mother’s health, dignity and life. It’s a stark, but rather beautiful book – made even more poignant because my own parents died of cancer in 1992 and 1999 (although, unlike Brown’s mother, neither of them had chemotherapy).
Echoes of Memory (John O’Donohue): I love O’Donohue’s ability with words (you can almost hear him speaking them). Beautifully-crafted memories of Ireland, family, love, Celtic spirituality and nature (including ravens!). A lovely book.
Let Us Go Then, You and I (TS Eliot): This is a book of Eliot’s selected poems. I’ve been reading a fair amount of poetry over the past couple of years – impressed by the words and the beauty of language, but struggling to understand an awful lot of it, I have to say! Frequently, I would very much welcome some form of editorial note that provided a little piece of background… and I’m sure there are lots of others like me. I’ll keep trying.
Instructions for a Heatwave (Maggie O’Farrell): This is our Book Group’s latest book. It tells of a retired father of a complicated Irish family, living in London, who mysteriously disappears one morning… and follows his wife’s and his grown-up children’s actions to track him down (which, for me, seemed to be incredibly calm and rather lacking any real sense of urgency?). Somewhat predictably (sorry!), many of the comments I made on the Patrick Gale novel (above) apply here too. However, that would be a little unfair on Maggie O’Farrell. She’s a very good storyteller; I liked her writing style and her characters, on the whole, are very believable. I enjoyed the book (despite my reservations about reading fiction – which will please Gareth, who chose it for our book group!) and read it within three days.

Monday, October 07, 2013

blue jasmine

Karen, Moira+I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine. It’s a story of a former New York socialite (played by Cate Blanchett) whose high-flying life comes crashing down when her husband (Alec Baldwin) loses everything in a government liquidation of their vast fortune. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal as a woman-on-the-edge is stunning (surely Oscar-winning?) – unrelenting, emotional and desperate… managing to portray both the supremely beautiful and the broken, ravaged woman within the same film with apparent, uncomfortable  ease. The other actors give powerful performances too… especially Sally Hawkins (of “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Made in Dagenham” fame), who plays Blanchett’s down-at-heel sister.
If I’m honest, I was slightly disappointed by the film. Although it was a typical melancholic Allen movie, I would have been grateful for a few more moments of humour and a little less abrasiveness (but that’s probably just me!). Having said that, there’s no doubt that it’s an impressive, powerful film with some huge individual performances… and definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

daisy chapman at arnos vale

Ruth+I went to a concert at a cemetery last night… as you do.
Singer/songwriter/pianist Daisy Chapman was appearing in the Anglican Chapel at the wonderful Arnos Vale Cemetery last night. I’ve seen her a number of times before, but this was the first time she was accompanied by violin, viola and cello (MUCH better than the electronic-repeater-gadget she usually employs!) and was excellent.
One of the bonuses of the evening was that my lovely friend Anna was playing violin in the other band performing – Martin Callingham with Joyce The Librarian (what a great name!!).
Very enjoyable evening in brilliant, intimate surroundings.  
PS: Rather beautiful leaving the chapel at the end of the concert and walking along the illuminated roadway… beside gravestone angels!
PPS: Naturally, with friends like mine, going to a concert at a cemetery attracted a fair number of comments… these are just a few: “dead good”, “gravely poignant”, “was it underground music?” and “did they serve spirits at the interval?”… probably just as well that the Grateful Dead weren’t appearing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Moira+I are SO lucky… we have three of our grandchildren (and their lovely parents!) living in Bristol and so we have the huge privilege of watching them grow up and develop at close hand. If ONLY we could wave a magic wand and have such regular playdays etc with our other three grandchildren in Leyland (and their lovely parents, of course!). Actually, Mikey, Dan+Jemima have Dave’s parents living just down the road from them – which is absolutely great.
Retiring when we did has ensured that Moira+I DO have the luxury (yes, I know we’re a privileged generation in many ways) to be able to enjoy spending time with our grandchildren – among lots of other things.
I’m not actually due/entitled to retire until February 2014, but I made the conscious decision to retire early (in the summer of 2011). I’m really not sure that I can afford to retire, but we live relatively simply and, so far, we seem to be muddling through reasonably well.
What I CAN say, after a little more than two years of retirement, is that (so far) it’s been a brilliant decision. We’re both active and reasonably healthy (albeit with the odd ailment!) and this has meant that we can REALLY enjoy our grandchildren NOW – in a way that my parents, certainly, did NOT do so… ok, yes, it was a different world and it’s probably just as well that my parents didn’t have a big involvement in our daughters’ lives!!
This involvement with our Bristol grandchildren’s day-to-day lives has taken on a new significance TODAY… it’s our first proper playday with just Ursula, because Rosa is now at school full time (obviously, Iris has been at school for some three years now).
Before I retired, Moira used to take a hand in looking after Iris+Rosa one or two days a week. In the school holidays before retirement and during subsequent term times, I have really enjoyed participating in our twice-weekly “playdays” – which, over recent months, has also involved Ursula.
During term time, we’ve had Rosa+Ursula playdays twice weekly and, over the school summer holidays this year, we’ve enjoyed the three girls’ company three days a week… yes, physically exhausting, but great fun!
With Rosa starting full-time school (she was in the nursery class two-and-a-half days a week last year), there has come a sudden (for me) realisation that in a little more than two years’ time, Ursula will be in full-time school too… if I hadn’t retired, I would have missed out on enjoying all those playdays with Iris+Rosa altogether (and several with Ursula).
What value can you put on witnessing/participating in these wonderful early days of your grandchildren’s lives to such a full extent? You simply can’t. Having gone through the experience, it’s priceless.
We continue to be incredibly lucky… and hugely privileged.
Photo: the Bristol contingent…
PS: yes, I know there COULD be more grandchildren… but I think six is a very good number to stick on!


Sunday, September 22, 2013

august-september 2013 books

More book stuff:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot): This is our Book Group’s latest book. It’s a true-story account of a poor, black, American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, aged 31. She was the mother of six children and, outside her immediate family, was unknown to the rest of the world. However, through her cancer cells (taken without her knowledge for medical research, she achieved “immortality”. More than 50 million tonnes(!) of HeLa* cells (*their medical name) have been grown over the past six decades in the course of developing a multimillion-dollar industry (and contributing to 5 of the past 10 Nobel Prizes for Medicine in the process) and yet her family knew nothing of this until more than twenty years after her death. I found this a truly remarkable, humbling, moving account of racism and injustice – brilliantly told and researched by Rebecca Skloot (who spent a decade working with family members and interviewing hundreds of people in the process). A few weeks ago, I described Laurent Binet’s “HHhH” as one of my best books of 2013… but I honestly think Skloot’s book surpasses it by some way! You MUST read it (despite its length!).
My Father’s Fortune (Michael Frayn): This is a beautiful memoir of Frayn’s father (written at the request of his daughters, “wondering about their origins”). In trying to do so, he realises just how much he’s forgotten and how much of his background he’d never bothered to question. Fortunately, he was able to enlist the help of his surviving relatives (a good reminder for all families!). His father, Tom, came from impoverished circumstances, married his childhood sweetheart Violet and became a travelling salesman. It’s funny (with a lovely sense of irony) and moving. His father’s life is not particularly exceptional and that’s what provides much of the book’s charm.
After A Funeral (Diane Athill): This is a work of non-fiction (that took place in the mid-1960s) and tells the story of how and why a talented writer came to kill himself. The man was an Egyptian in exile; Athill was immediately captivated by him and he moved into her flat (as a lodger). He was a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser… and impossible to live with. It’s an incredibly tender, honest and painful account of the three years they spent together before he finally committed suicide (I’m not giving anything away here – Athill mentions it in chapter one and it also appears on the book cover!). A powerful, haunting book.
The Four Elements (John O’Donohue): O’Donohue is a huge hero of mine and I just love his wisdom and his writing. This book (originally four pamphlets) reflects on nature through the elements of air, water, fire and stone and explores a range of themes relating to the way we live our lives today. For once, I’m sad to admit that I found this the least compelling book of his that I’ve read (and I’ve read them all – apart from his two poetry books). There, I’ve said it!
The Rain Before It Falls (Jonathan Coe): This is a sad, often moving story of mothers and daughters through three generations. It’s about relationships, families and honesty… amongst other things. Some of the story is told by a dying woman in her seventies speaking into a hand-held primitive tape recorder as she endeavours to pass on what she knows of a family’s history. At times, I found this “storytelling device” just too artificial and I also felt that the ending was rather too contrived. Nevertheless, it’s a well-written, powerful, rather beautiful book.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

last day of the cricket season…

I went along to the County Ground, Bristol yesterday to watch the last day of the final game of the cricket season (and, somewhat ridiculously, my FIRST game of the season!).
It felt a bit like the last day of term.
Despite the sunny weather, the crowd was very thin and those who were there seemed to be members or regulars who were attending simply to bid goodbye to their mates until next season.
From the onset, I knew the game (Gloucestershire were playing Lancashire) was likely to peter out in a tame draw - nearly two, out of four, days had been lost to the weather. The only real “hope” was for both teams to make generous declarations in the hope that one of the sides could secure victory during the course of the afternoon. However, there was little hope of that happening because Lancashire needed only a draw to secure the second division championship. Gloucestershire were bowled out before lunch and, with game was heading for the inevitable draw, the only real challenge was to see if the Lancashire opening batsman, Luis Reece, could score his maiden first-class century… unfortunately, he was bowled for 97 and looked a VERY dejected figure as he slowly trudged off at the end (the captains having “shaken hands” on a draw immediately after his dismissal).
I overheard a conversation of a group of local spectators (all of whom seemed VERY knowledgeable about the game – anoraks might be the word! - and were regularly trying to out-do each other by quoting various bizarre cricket statistics) bemoaning the fact that the last day of the match “isn’t a very good advert for the game”. Obviously, they were right but, for me, it was just lovely sitting on the boundary, watching the cricket and the world go by and enjoying the banter and the sunshine.
I need to do it more often!
Photo: Lancashire’s Reece on his way to scoring 97 runs.
PS: Ironically, I had watched Lancashire’s last game of the season two years ago – against Somerset at Taunton – where a victory had secured them the very same second division title… they were relegated last season! I’m obvious a good-luck talisman as far as Lancashire are concerned and so, for a very large fee, would be prepared to see more of their games!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

the last five years

No, this isn’t about the next General Election…
Moira+I went along to the Brewery Theatre last night to see/hear Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years”. It’s a one-act musical (apparently it’s the first ever musical to be staged there) that spans a doomed relationship between Cathy, an aspiring actress (played by Catriona Mackenzie), and Jamie, a successful novelist (Matthew Ronchetti). The quality of the music is excellent and both actors have fine singing voices (especially Cathy), very ably backed by two highly-accomplished pianists. At times, I was reminded of the musical “Tell Me on a Sunday”… but hey, what do I know?
The production is very cleverly conceived (and simply, but effectively, staged) and takes the form of a series of operatic monologues (virtually no spoken dialogue and the only time the couple interact is when they get married) – with Jamie’s story played out in chronological order, while Cathy’s is done in reverse. This might sound rather perverse, but it actually proved very effective. 
A very enjoyable evening. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

one year like this...

It doesn’t seem like a year ago that I started my “one day like this” blog…
Following my return-to-sketching experiences on Iona last summer, I decided on a daily discipline of posting a photograph and a drawing on alternate days. One year on and it seems slightly bizarre to look back on folders of the posted completed images.
Predictably, the quality and style vary. The photos are comparatively easy to produce – just an extension of something I’ve done informally for some time (I usually carry my camera with me and just can’t stop myself from taking pictures of things that catch my eye!). Subjects vary, but frequently involve themes of light/shade, colour and composition.
The sketches are a completely different matter and can be anything from 5 minute scribbles to (very occasionally) drawings that might take me 90 minutes to complete. Again, the subjects vary but frequently include cafes, boats, buildings, people and domestic stuff. I would love to be able just to sit down and produce a very quick sketch of a group of people or of a location but, although I continue to persevere, I find it really hard to do this – my default characteristic is for rather careful, disciplined drawings! The most important aspect of the "project" is to draw regularly and certainly NOT the quality of the drawings.  
Whenever possible, I try hard to draw “on location” but, for various reasons (weather, nosey people looking over your shoulder, laziness etc!), I also end up working from photographs (or finish them off from photos). The good thing is that the discipline of drawing regularly has definitely speeded up my technique and also, over the course of the year, I think I’ve “loosened up” somewhat too!
When I first started this “project”, I did so with no specific idea of how long I would keep it up and, to be honest, I still don’t know. All I do know is that I’m continuing to enjoy it and that it’s certainly my intention to continue for another year or two at least – but who knows?
Photo: some of the 180 plus drawings from the past year!