Sunday, April 28, 2013

meeting up…

Life is full of coincidences. When I was volunteering with the Iona Community last summer, Becki Cox was the resident staff member “in charge” of all the volunteers (I think “staffing administrator” was her job title?). She’d noticed that I’d made reference to St Mary’s church, Thame in my application form. Her family had been church members there for a short time when she was “very young”(!) and so mentioned this in our first conversation on Iona. Well, of course, memories came rushing back… her parents, Sheila (singing group plus much, much more) and Stephen (star member of the church cricket team etc) and their twins, Andy and Chris (even smaller than Becki!).
At long last – and entirely due to Becki’s determination and organising capabilities - Moira+I met Sheila, Becki and Stephen for lunch at Bordeaux Quay, Bristol yesterday. We hadn’t seen Becki for 10 months, but it had been TWENTY years since we’d seen Sheila and Stephen!! And yet, strangely, thanks to the wonders of facebook (Stephen and Becki have been our FB friends since last summer – Sheila has decided to resist such social media temptations!), it didn’t seem like 20 years at all.
And the other (quite amazing) coincidence is that one of our old college friends, John Tremlett – he and I shared a house together for two years – is also a very good friend of the Cox family (he taught Becki to drive and his daughter and Becki were great school friends etc)… again, it was only through facebook that this fact “emerged”!
Anyway, Moira+I had an absolutely lovely time meeting up with them yesterday and, hopefully, it’ll be much less than twenty years before we get together again!
Photo: Sheila, Moira, Stephen, Becki and me in the Bristol sunshine (in front of Hannah’s harbourside banner).

Saturday, April 27, 2013

martin simpson at colston hall

Last night was my SECOND concert at Colston Hall in less than a week. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mark a new extravagant lifestyle or sudden wealth… simply how it turned out when I booked three concerts some months ago.
Martin Simpson IS an amazing musician – probably the best (non-classical) guitarist I’ve ever seen. I was sitting in the second row last night and became completely mesmerised by watching his right hand as he played the instrument (am I really that sad?)… he seemed to use ALL his fingers – and I don’t mean just “strumming”!
He played for a total of two hours in two sets. He’d lived in America (California and New Orleans) for a number of years and the first set included a fair amount of “American folk” (which isn’t really my cup-of-tea); the second set included much more familiar “traditional English” songs and was simply stunning.
A musical genius and a complete master of his craft.
PS: This might seem a slightly strange observation, but I noticed that probably 75% of the audience was male (much higher than normal, in my experience). Why was this, I wonder? Is guitar-playing a particularly “bloke” thing? Just asking!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

april 2013 books

More book stuff:
About Looking (John Berger): I bought this in the Tate St Ives bookshop. I’ve always been a firm believer in the need for us all to “learn to see” (ie. we often “look”, but don’t always “see”) and so this book seemed essential reading for me. Berger explores our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. They’re taken from various articles Berger wrote in the 1960s/70s; some of them remain rather obscure to me (despite Google’s help!), but I read others (eg. those relating to Millet, Lowry, Francis Bacon, Turner and Rodin) with absolute fascination and certainly saw lots of things afresh.
Stag’s Leap (Sharon Olds): I’ve been reading more poetry over recent years and opened the book on a whim on one of my pleasurable visits to Foyles bookshop. I was immediately struck by Olds’ writing style and the poignancy of her subject. It’s a book of 49 poems (I counted them!) after her husband of more than 30 years had “left her for another woman”. They’re incredibly honest reflections that extend well beyond “confessional”; they’re full of intimacy and sexual passion. The book was clearly written out of pain and as a way of counselling herself in coming to terms with her new situation. I was left with two overriding thoughts: a) her former husband will probably feel as if he’s being continually stalked and hung out to dry and b) that, surely, 49 poems is a bit excessive and she needs to move on! It is a quite stunning book though.   
A Book of Silence (Sara Maitland): After Maitland’s marriage ended in the 1990s, she took to living alone and, around the same time, began a long, growing, and intensely examined relationship with silence. She subsequently restored a tiny, dilapidated former-shepherd’s house into her own home in rural south-west Scotland. She tries to live in as much silence as is possible (which is more difficult than it might sound). It's not complete isolation - although she has no near neighbours, she has the internet and a car - but she is aiming for a prayerful life of "80% silence". It’s a fascinating journey and an honest, reflective and rather beautiful book.
The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 (Clive James): I absolutely love James’s writing – he has a wonderful, lyrical, snappy way with words; he’s articulate, intelligent and there’s an amazing breadth to his knowledge and interests (from poetry, art, literature and culture to films, music, politics and motor sports). He’s also very funny when he needs to be. This is a book of fairly recent essays. These reminded me, amongst other things, how much I had loved Denis Healey’s autobiography; how he hates poor grammar(!); what a fierce critic he can be when roused and, as morbid as this might sound, I particularly liked his obituaries (“Absent Friends”). According to recent newspaper reports, the irony is that he himself now doesn’t have long to live - he’s “losing his two-year struggle with leukaemia”. I for one will miss him dearly – thank goodness there’s so much of his writing that I’ve still to read.
The Box (Gunter Grass): I found this a very strange book. It’s essentially an autobiographical essay – although the book jacket refers to it as a “daring work of fiction”. Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they recall memories (often contradictory) of their childhoods. “The Box” refers to an old-fashioned Agfa box camera used by Grass’s assistant, Marie (a long-time family friend, perhaps even a lover?), and its snapshots used to provide Grass with for ideas for his work. I found the book confusing, annoying and egoistic (and poorly translated?). Sorry!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

king creosote: legless again (almost)…

The last time I saw King Creosote (+Jon Hopkins) perform was last May in the tiny library on Iona. It was a memorable “gig” – for the general hilarity, if not the precise musical accomplishment (they’d been drinking triple G+Ts in the Argyll Hotel all afternoon!). I went to see/hear him again last night at Colston Hall and he was almost legless again – this time, he walked on stage on crutches (he’d broken his ankle)!
Anyway, last night’s concert was absolutely excellent. I just love his voice and his (often) melancholic and lyrical song-writing… and he’s also very funny.
A full house and a great evening.
PS: he wasn’t “legless” at the Iona concert – just “very merry”… but, when I chatted to him last night, he admitted they’d got into a “bit of trouble” (with the hotel?) as a result!
PPS: last night he was drinking water…

Sunday, April 21, 2013

the count of monte cristo at the brewery theatre

Somewhat ridiculously, last night was the first time Moira+I had been to see a performance at the Brewery Theatre in North Street, Bristol (opened by the Tobacco Factory Theatre in 2009). On the face of it, the idea of a small travelling company of three actors rendering Alexandre Dumas’s famous book (all 117 chapters!) into a credible theatrical performance is ambitious, to put it mildly.
We need not have worried.
Andy Burden’s production (he transcribed, edited and adapted the book and directed the play) proved to be a complete delight. The three talented actors (Alex Dunbar, Kali Hughes and Dan Winter) play seventeen parts between them - utilising simple props and costumes - and are excellent. There’s something incredibly exciting about theatre being performed in a small, intimate space – where the audience is taken on a fast-moving journey and where imagination, directness and honesty are conveyed with such appealing, believable conviction.
I loved it!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

another stunning, new education policy…

Michael Gove’s been at it again (surely not?)…
This time it’s about “longer school day and shorter holidays”.
Apparently, according to education guru Gove, our schools need to adopt this approach because it’s the way they do it in south-east Asia.
Sadly, I think the real reasons he wants to introduce this policy are that, magically, a) they mirror the long-hours culture of the workplace (oh, excellent!); b) they keep children at school (or should that be “child-minding” centre?) for longer and this will be less inconvenient for busy working parents; and c) he doesn’t like teachers.
Perhaps he should introduce compulsory boarding school for ALL children instead?
I find his “thinking” SO wrong that it’s almost funny – except that he’s dealing with children’s and families’ lives here.
It would be very easy (ie. about as easy as Gove finds introducing education policies?) to provide a lengthy list of objections to the education secretary’s latest “initiative”. I’m not even going to try, but I would offer the following brief thoughts:
1.       The concept of “quality family time” has clearly been kicked into touch by Gove (where would families find the time for this, given Gove’s new timetable?).
2.       After-school clubs are a very important way for children to get to enjoy important “non-lesson” activities outside the curriculum… and these include sports, music, language, science, IT, technology, art, drama, dance (actually, the list is HUGE). If you extended the school day, all these would be lost. How else would school theatrical productions, sports matches, concerts and the like happen? Answer: they wouldn’t – because there wouldn’t be time available.
3.       Everyone knows that teachers have it INCREDIBLY easy (of course!) and have far too much time on their hands. Clearly, they don’t need to prepare any of their lessons in advance or mark homework or meet parents… and, on top of all that, they just love dealing with badly misbehaving children – so a couple of extra lessons will come as a godsend. Actually, come to think of it, lots of the behavioural problems can be put down to poor parenting so, if children spend LESS time with their parents, and more time at school, then things are bound to improve massively!
Gosh, that Mr Gove is a very, very clever man… quite brilliant.
I could go on…

Thursday, April 18, 2013

two gentlemen of verona

For the first time in a long time, I came away from a performance at the wonderful Tobacco Factory Theatre feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it was because it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best plays? Maybe I’d been spoilt by seeing so many RSC productions? Maybe it was my mood on the night?
I really don’t know.
Moira+I think we’ve only seen this play performed once before… in Edinburgh, several years ago – and so, perhaps, the play’s comparative unfamiliarity (to me) was partly to “blame”?
Don’t get me wrong… the acting, the costumes, the design and the music were all good. But, sadly, no aspect of last night’s performance struck me as being outstanding… I was well entertained, but I wasn’t transformed by any theatrical “magic” – as I so often am.
However, it seems that I might be in a minority… The Independent has given the play a 4-star review!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

a late quartet

Another cheap Wednesday afternoon’s cinema at the Watershed!
This time, it was to see Yaron Zilberman’s directing debut in “A Late Quartet” featuring four wonderful, highly-talented actors: Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The film features the Fugue String Quartet, an internationally acclaimed musical group based in New York, who have been playing around the world for past 25 years. Their founder, brilliantly played by Christopher Walken (cellist) is diagnosed with the early signs of Parkinson’s disease (I’m not really giving the game away here, I promise) and this throws the quartet into a somewhat confused self-questioning group, with an uncertain future. That’s when the film starts to explore them as individuals as well as part of a celebrated group of musicians.
It’s a beautiful, subtle, moving and intelligent film (and the music is rather good too!) AND New York looks stunning in the winter snow. Although the actors are clearly not professional musicians, the film was apparently made without “hand doubles” for the vast majority of “takes” – I have to say, it’s all pretty convincing to my untutored eyes.
I loved the film and would highly recommend it.
PS: Please note: this is NOT Dustin Hoffman’s film “Quartet:, this IS “A Late Quartet” starring (amongst others) Philip Seymour Hoffman! Confused? Don’t worry, rest assured, THIS is the one you should definitely see!…

Tuesday, April 09, 2013


I’ve been trying to avoid all the wall-to-wall media frenzy following Lady Thatcher’s death.
It’s obviously impossible to do so… but, don’t worry, I’m NOT going to list all my pet grievances (or even one or two positives) about the woman!
However, I have been reflecting on the hugely differing political legacies that war provided for both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Mrs T decided to embark on the Falkland’s War in 1982 when her popularity was at an all-time low. I opposed the war. To this day, I maintain that it was nothing more than jingoistic opportunity to re-assert illusions of the “old empire”. Despite the problems of fighting a war such a long way from home (and the strong opposition from the US), there was never any real chance of Britain “losing”. I absolutely hated the whole affair.
Sadly, I was in a minority.
Incredibly (to me), the public at large lapped it up. Mrs T’s popularity soared and she went on to win a resounding victory at the next general Election in 1983. I personally found the entire business completely sickening but, for many people, the “Falkland’s Factor” was the political making of Mrs Thatcher.
In contrast, Blair’s legacy of the Iraq War in 2003 (alongside Bush junior) is almost entirely negative - certainly from a UK viewpoint at least. The comparatively slow build-up - with Saddam being given warnings about all those “Weapons of Mass Destruction” - gave the British public time to voice their opinions (eg. a million people, including me, took to London’s streets in the largest political demonstration in the city’s history). Although he went on to win a third general election victory in 2005, his majority was much-reduced majority and he was severely tainted.
People never quite trusted the man after that (and I don't really blame them).   
With arrangements being made for Lady Thatcher’s “ceremonial” funeral – with full military honours, would you believe(!) – next Wednesday, I think the Tories will be loving all the attention their beloved former leader will have given them over the next week or so: parliament is being recalled (ridiculously in my opinion – although one might question why they’re in recess at all?) so it can “show its respect”; on the day of her funeral, streets will be cleared of traffic and the coffin processed from Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral.
It’ll be rather like a non-stop party political broadcast for them.
Call me when it's all over!

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

in the house

Went with Alan+Gareth to see this psychological Francois Ozon film yesterday afternoon. At times, it felt like watching a Woody Allen movie. High school teacher Germain (very well played by Fabrice Luchini) is bored by his job and depressed by the lack of imagination (and effort!) shown by his French literature students… but encouraged by the creative-writing assignments of one talented 16-year-old pupil who writes about his attempts to wheedle his way into the middle-class home of a classmate. It becomes a matter of rather uncomfortable classroom voyeurism (with comic elements)… the boy’s fascination with his classmates beautiful mother (Esther, played by Emmanuelle Seigner)… and, ultimately, affects Germain’s own job and marriage (he’s married to Kirsten Scott Thomas!).
In the end, I really didn’t know what to make of it… and came away feeling ultimately disappointed.