Wednesday, July 31, 2013

horace batchelor+frances ha

Moira+I are having a busy theatre+cinema week this week*.
Last night, we joined our lovely friends Chris+Lal to see the opening night of “An Audience With Horace Batchelor: King of Keynsham” at The Brewery Theatre. The theatre was absolutely packed to bursting (tickets were discounted at just £5 for the first performance, so we can't really complain!). If you’re under 40 years old, you’ve probably never heard of Horace Batchelor and his adverts on Radio Luxemburg promoting his “infra-draw method” for winning the football pools (“Keynsham… spelt K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M, Keynsham, Bristol”!).  Needless to say, the average age of the audience was well above 60 years of age!
Roland Oliver was convincing in the “Horace” role – except for his frequent (and rather embarrassing) need to check his lines in the folder on top of his desk. One of the main themes of the play underlined Batchelor’s sense of being unappreciated by society at large (eg. no streets named after him or blue plaques erected in his memory).
Not the best live theatre we’ve experienced, I’m afraid!
On an altogether more positive note, we THOROUGHLY enjoyed Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” at the Watershed this afternoon, starring the excellent Greta Gerwig. It’s essentially about an aspiring dancer who moves to New York to try to make a life for herself as a performer. It’s beautifully shot (in black+white) and a funny, enjoyable film and it contains some lovely moments – such as Frances running down a New York street to accompaniment of David Bowie soundtrack. After watching the “Imagine” programmes on Woody Allen earlier in the week, it was difficult to avoid comparisons with “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”.
We enjoyed “Frances Ha” a lot!
PS: *We’ve also got tickets to see an alfresco version of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” at The Old Vic on Saturday (the weather forecast is for rain!).
Photo: Horace Batchelor (left) plus Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Frances (Greta Gerwig).

Friday, July 26, 2013

architecture+retirement: mixed emotions

We were round at Hannah+Fee’s house the other evening and they were asking me some basic town planning+building regulation questions about a potential extension they were considering for their house. It was only then that I realised that, even though we were talking about very basic matters, I no longer had such information immediately to hand (actually, I was never very good at the “technical” aspects of architecture!).
I retired from architecture in 2005 and, apart from the odd occasion, haven’t really missed it.
However, I have to acknowledge that, watching the BBC’s brilliant Imagine programme on Richard Rogers (actually, I’d originally watch part of it when it was first screened in 2008), did give me a yearning for the old days of working with clients and members of our office in pursuit of architectural elegance and excellence!! This is clearly a somewhat romantic view of my former life, but we did produce some (not all!) significant projects. 
Richard Rogers is now 80 years old and a truly inspirational figure (well, for me at least – and very much so as someone who is prepared to stand up to the Prince of Wales on the matter of architecture!). He studied at the Architectural Association in London, before continuing his studies in the States at Yale (together with Norman Foster and, indeed, his first wife Su Rogers).
From the beginning, he was very much a follower of the Modern Movement and drew inspiration from the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe (weren’t we all!).
Yes, the Imagine programme did make me rather nostalgic for the exciting, frustrating, dynamic, scary world of architectural practice…
Clearly, despite the economic downturn, I would have secured a better retirement financially had I continued (and not eased down “to spend more time with my family” and work with young people in education for six years!), and yet retiring when I did has provided me with a wealth of simple joys I would never have realised…
Moira+I may not have built our own dream house… or toured the world… or enjoyed exotic holidays BUT these simply cannot compare with the joys of watching your grandchildren flower in their early years at close hand (they’ll be teenagers being you can blink!).
Sometimes, I feel like a bit of a cheat or a fraud.
I don’t currently undertake any voluntary work on behalf of charities or local groups (although I do sign a lot of petitions and write to politicians on occasions!)… some of my friends put me to shame in such matters. At the moment (as well as the huge grandchildren+family element of my life), my time is enjoyably spent: walking on a daily basis; finding things to sketch or photograph each day; and making up for all those comparatively non-reading years by reading a book every week… plus more time for music, concerts, theatre, the cinema and spiritual values (oh, and cafes!)!
If the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) hadn’t insisted that retired architects still had to maintain their annual hours of CPD (continued professional development) – how ridiculous is that(?) and, believe me, I wrote several letters before finally giving up in despair(!) - then perhaps I might have retained a regular involvement in architecture in some capacity.
As it is, I’m simply a retired architect who loves his current life… so I can’t complain.
Photo: Pompidou Centre, Paris by Piano+Rogers (photographed on our visit in September 2011).
PS: I LOVED the fact that Rogers was still DRAWING when it came to producing his design concepts (there was a scene in the programme when he was sketching out of doors at his house in Tuscany!)… all too often, it seems to me (old school that I am!), some young architects apparently don’t think that an ability to draw is important these days.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

the ugly, depressing world of yah-boo politics

I listened to “Yesterday in Parliament” on Radio 4 last night… and, in particular, the so-called “Prime Minister’s Questions”. Although I’d already seen snippets on television, I have to say that it left me feeling utterly depressed and embarrassed at the state of politics in this country.
It was an absolute farce… a wall of noise – from both sides of the House.
Sadly, there WERE some serious points to be made – funding of political parties; donations from trade unions and hedge funds alike; MPs’ second jobs; MPs’ pay etc – but such matters were lost in the ridiculous shouting contest that PMQ has become.
At a time when the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, the country is crying out for sensible, measured, political debate… but there seems little chance of that.
Do politicians wonder at the disillusionment of the British public? Do most of them really care?  
As things stand, I won’t be supporting any of the major parties come the next General Election… and, although I acknowledge that my individual vote will not have the slightest effect on which party/parties form the next government, I’ll be voting for the Green Party.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

stories we tell

Moira+I made a rather late-in-the-day decision to go along to the Watershed yesterday to see Sarah Polley’s semi-documentary film “Stories We Tell”. After 20 minutes, I remember thinking that it was going a watchable, but unremarkable, film – but soon after that I began being enthralled by its story and the way in which Polley had chosen to tell it (she uses Super 8 film, “fake” footage from home movies plus genuine archive material  – somewhat pathetically, it took me half the film to realise that actors were being used for some scenes!). The film is a portrait of her troubled parents (retired British actor, Michael Polley, and his Canadian actor/television presenter wife, Diane). I’ve just seen it described as a “love-letter to her father and mother” and, although this seems a little trite, I think it’s a fair description. Diane died of cancer when Sarah was just 11 years old. Sarah Polley gets other family members (she has two brothers and two sisters) and friends of Diane to tell their own stories and to give their own interpretations. It all sounds so simple (and even quite boring!), but I assure you that it isn’t.
For me, one of the most poignant, telling aspects of the film was Michael’s deeply felt reminiscences which he’d written down (thanks to Sarah’s encouragement) and was made to read passages aloud for part of the film.
I’m delighted we decided to go along and thoroughly recommend that this is a film you should definitely try to see (it’s on at the Watershed, Bristol until at least 11 July).
Certainly one of my films of the year so far!
Footnote: I came out of the film reflecting on the unreliability of memory in all our lives. Ask any member of our own family and, inevitably, you’ll get vastly different viewpoints. For me, I’m pretty awful at remembering specific occasions (that might be one of the reasons I now write this blog?)… or, rather, I THINK I have complete recall of them – until Moira gently reminds me of the ACTUAL details. This has gone on throughout our married life (and I’m sure that our daughters will back Moira up on this!). The only problem is that I am apt to recount stories of these events at the drop of a hat… and this process of recalling “untruths” merely acts as a way of transforming unreliable memories into fact!

Monday, July 01, 2013

june 2013 books

More book stuff:
Umbrella (Will Self): I suspect that this is a truly brilliant book. I started reading it just before going on holiday and then decided to “put it on hold” in favour of more suitable holiday reading material. The story focuses on Audrey, a munitions worker in 1918, who is incarcerated in a mental hospital after falling victim to encephalitis lethargic, a brain disease that leaves some of its victims speechless and motionless. In 1971 she is treated by psychiatrist Dr Busner, who wakes her from her stupor with a new drug.
The book covers three time frames (1918, 1971 and 2010) and four viewpoints (the psychiatrist, his patient and her two brothers). The book is NOT easily accessible – well, certainly not for me. It’s 397 pages long and probably contains no more than 10 paragraphs in the entire book and NO chapters! It’s a rambling, poetic, stream-of-consciousness narrative. It probably took me at least half of the book to get into. Self frequently switches focus and time between (and during) sentences. By the end, I sensed that I’d read something quite remarkable- from an author of huge imagination, intelligence and skill.
A Time To Mend: Reflections in Uncertain Times (Peter Millar): I’ve read a number of books produced by Peter Millar over the years (he’s a former Warden of the Iona Community) and he’s always struck me as a very wise, gentle and fascinating man. This wide-ranging and poignant book of reflections is rather beautiful - as well as challenging – and one that I’ll no doubt refer to over the coming years.  
Pushing The Boat Out (edited Kathy Galloway): A collection of poems, from 16 authors, having its origins in the Iona Community magazine “Coracle”. Kay Carmichael describes it thus: “Poetry can speak to the intellect, the heart or the spirit. This is a rare anthology in that it speaks to all three”. I’d go along with that and will certainly keep dipping into over future months/years.
HHhH (Laurent Binet): This is our latest Book Group book and, although I’m generally not a great lover of historical fiction, this is just brilliant. The novel tells the true story of two Czech parachutists’ WW2 mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services. Heydrich’sa boss was Heinrich Himmler and the book’s strange title is taken from what everyone in the SS said of their association: “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich” (“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). Again, rather like Will Self’s “Umbrella”, there’s a fair amount of stream-of-consciousness stuff – with Binet often speculating on what might have happened and then, perhaps, later rubbishing his original thoughts… or coming up with new speculation - with lots of its workings shown in the margins (as it were). It’s amusing, poignant, highly original, imaginative and completely captivating. Probably one of the best books I’ve read this year (to date!)!
So Many Ways to Begin (Jon McGregor): This a gentle, at times almost mundane, story of ordinary lives – but told in McGregor’s intricately-observed writing style. It tells of the relationship of a couple, David and Eleanor, from youth to age and of their own upbringings. Although perhaps not as impressive as “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” (it would be difficult to match this!) or “Even The Dogs”, I thought this was another beautiful McGregor book.