Saturday, March 29, 2014

march 2014 books

More book stuff:
Kitaj: The Architects (Colin St John Wilson+MJ Long): This is a brief diary of a painting by RB Kitaj (1932-2007) entitled “The Architects”, compiled by its subjects Wilson+Long (during the course of its execution 1979-81) in celebration of the remodelling of Kitaj’s home by MJ Long. It includes “progress photographs” and provides a fascinating insight into the creation of a piece of art – especially in the light of its critical, design/art-sensitive “sitters”.
Joseph Southall 1861-1944 Artist-Craftsman (Retrospective Exhibition, Birmingham City Art Gallery 1980): I bought this extensive guidebook from a second-hand bookseller on the internet for £1-57(!) after being impressed by Southall’s work on one of my recent visits to Brum. As with all such guides, it doesn’t illustrate ALL the works described… so, without seeing the exhibition, it’s somewhat frustrating at times! Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating insight into his work, his influences and his friendships (and his Quaker faith).
Drysalter (Michael Symmons Roberts): This book has been much-acclaimed by very many eminent people. It’s a very beautiful collection of poems by a writer of faith (he read Philosophy+Theology at Oxford) who, in the words of Adam Newey writing in TheGuardian, “requires what you might call a willing suspension of agnosticism” for the secular reader. In my own personal current spiritual wilderness, I have to say that I struggled with many of the pieces (with both their meaning and what they were trying to convey – maybe this was something to do with my contrasting huge enjoyment of Billy Collins’ work recently?) and found it somewhat depressing to realise that it was probably my own lack of intellect that prevented a better understanding. That said, I’m also very aware that I’ll be returning to the book over the coming months and years and have a sense that it will become an important source of challenge and support.
The Barracks (John McGahern): This was McGahern’s first novel, published in 1963. It tells the story of a former nurse who returns to the Irish village of her upbringing, marries a widowed sergeant who is unhappy with job in the local police force, and “inherits” his children from his earlier marriage. After having previously worked for some years in a London hospital, her “moral sophistication” isn’t shared by those around her. It’s an unsentimental and haunting book about loneliness and illness and about, at times, the apparent ordinariness and futility of everyday life. I think it’s one of those books that will stay with me for some time.
1914 Poetry Remembers (Carol Anny Duffy): Poet Laureate Duffy has put together this book of poetry to mark the centenary of WW1. She’s engaged the “most eminent poets of the present” to choose writing from the Great war that has particularly touched them but also commissioned these same poets to write a poem of their own in response. It’s a powerful and rather beautiful combination.

the past

Went to see Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” at the Watershed yesterday afternoon. It’s a complicated (actually, probably too complicated for its own good) but, nevertheless, totally absorbing and fascinating film starring Berenice Bejo (Marie), Ali Mosaffa (Ahmad) and Tahar Rahim (Samir)(all excellent).
Marie asks Ahmad to return to Paris from Teheran to be present for much-delayed/much-disputed divorce proceedings – a grown-up farewell to their failed marriage but also an opportunity for him to say goodbye to her daughters from a previous relationship… but he ends up having to stay in her chaotic house – along with her new, younger partner Samir(and his small son). Are you following all this?
I suppose it’s a film about apologies and atonement (I blame Marie!)… but, ultimately, it’s also a sad reflection of the implications of failed and, perhaps, selfish adult relationships on children.
I thought it was excellent.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

hart’s bakery, bristol

We’re incredibly fortunate to have (at least) two local bakeries operating within walking distance of our house in Southville, Bristol. We use the brilliant Mark’s Bread+Café, in North Street, on a very regular basis – amazing bread and lovely people.
I only recently came across the second bakery, Hart’s Bakery, through a Bristol Kitchen Radio podcast (oh yes, we have it all here in Bristol!)… and was then reminded about it by our very good friend Gareth (the font of all knowledge when it comes to local food… and, of course, Bristol Pounds!).
Even if you live in our fair city, the chances are that you’ve never laid eyes on the bakery – even though it’s right next to Temple Meads railway station. In fact, it’s located under one of the arches below the approach road to the station itself.
I popped in yesterday morning to buy a loaf and to partake of their very good coffee (extremely important as far as I’m concerned!)… and, of course, I just had to have a pastry (it would have be rude not to).
Brilliant – unusual, basic, busy, hidden “secret” location, happy friendly people, wonderful cakes+pastries and excellent coffee… open Tuesday-Saturday 7am-3pm.
As I say, we’re incredibly fortunate…    
Photo: Hart’s Bakery
PS: check out the excellent video on the Hart’s Bakery website (“about us”).

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

jane eyre at the bristol old vic

I’ve never read the book but, like most people (I suspect), I knew its general scenario and the main characters. With son-in-law Felix playing the role of Rochester, I suppose I should have made an effort to read the book before seeing Sally Cookson’s outstanding, magical, two-part production… but I didn’t. In the event, I absolutely didn’t need to… the production, the wonderful set design, the stunning music and the hugely impressive cast TOLD the story of the book.
Quite brilliantly.
The play was devised over an eight week period by the company - an accomplishment I find pretty impressive in itself. I’ve seen a number of productions by Sally Cookson and each one has been extraordinary. I therefore went along to the Old Vic filled with a sense of both expectation and confidence, KNOWING that I wasn’t going to be disappointed… and yet, also knowing that I was going to be surprised and challenged (in a good way!).
As Cookson wrote in her programme notes: “I didn’t want loads of authentic set and period costume to suffocate the story so that it became a dinosaur of a piece, killing the magic of the story”.
Well, she certainly didn’t!
I won’t even begin to describe Michael Vale’s set (because, if you’re intending to see the production, I don’t want to spoil things for you), but it was quite breathtaking… visually remarkable and yet also practical and logical at the same time. And, if I had told you beforehand that music would be a crucially important part of the play, it might have put you off completely and convinced you to sell your tickets (“Jane Eyre, The Musical”? Really?). But, again, I’ve seen (and heard) a number of shows featuring Benji Bower as the composer and musical director and, so, just KNEW it was going to be ok. This proved to be an understatement – the music and, in particular, the exceptional voice of Melanie Marshall (as Bertha Mason) was simply magical.
The production emphasises the telling of a “life story” rather than “just a love story” – charting Jane’s childhood and her development into adulthood before we ever confront Edward Rochester. Identity is a key element and Jane comes across as a strong, unapologetic and determined woman.  
Madeleine Worrall gives a breathtaking, mesmerising performance as Jane and, I might be a little biased (OF COURSE I’m a little biased!!), I thought Felix’s Rochester was just wonderful – dry, cutting, grumpy and vulnerable.
A truly remarkable production. As the Old Vic’s Theatre Director, Tom Morris, says of Sally Cookson in his programme notes (addressing prospective members of the audience): “You are in the company of a unique theatre-making talent, and we should be proud that she is reaching the height of her powers here in Bristol”.
Photo (courtesy Bristol Old Vic website): Felix Hayes as Rochester and Madeleine Worrall as Jane.
PS: Moira+I saw Part 1 on 12 March and Part2 on 18 March.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

bristol pilgrimage

Not long after I returned from my two months of volunteering with the Iona Community in 2012, I undertook a day of “quiet contemplation” walking around my adopted city of Bristol using Jane Bentley+Neil Paynter’s excellent book “Around a Thin Place – an Iona pilgrimage guide” as a resource for my “journey”. Well, after some months of finding myself back(!) in something of a “spiritual wilderness” (and with the prospect of a beautiful, sunny Spring day), I decided to repeat the experience yesterday.
With my ongoing hip+knee issues, I decided to limit my walk around the city to just eight sections or stops (the last time I undertook this “pilgrimage”, I used twelve).
As before, I related my stopping points with pilgrimage stops on Iona:
St Martin’s Cross/setting out on the road was Vauxhall Bridge; The Nunnery was the old railway bridge over the Avon (near the Create Centre); Crossroads was the bench in Rownham Hill Wood overlooking the Avon and the busy Hotwell Road in the distance; High Point was, somewhat predictably, the Clifton Suspension Bridge; Columba’s Bay was the Green between West Mall+Caledonia Place (where I picked up two stones); the Machair was the excellent Farm Café, King’s Road in Clifton; the Hermit’s Cell was the graveyard/site of St Andrew’s church (destroyed in the Blitz) off Birdcage Walk; and St Oran’s Chapel was a harbourside bench (between The Cottage pub and Bristol Marina).
It proved another rewarding and thought-provoking time… and I KNOW I’ll be doing this again (choosing a completely different part of Bristol) over the coming months/years.
Photo: some photographs I took during the course of my walk.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

tony benn 1925-2014

Everyone will have an opinion of Tony Benn.
Over the years, I’d become a great admirer of him. Yes, there were occasions when his ideas seemed so extreme that it was difficult to take him seriously and, clearly at times, the political “establishment” in both the Labour Party and Parliament did their utmost to shout him down. But I’ve certainly found myself agreeing with many of his views over recent years and have felt saddened that he seemed to be a lone voice of political reason on occasions. During the course of the past 24 hours, much has been said about how Benn had become to be seen as a “national treasure”. I think that’s absolutely right. Although Tony Benn was, to my mind, an exceptional figure, I think it’s fascinating just how many politicians (or ex-politicians) seem to talk palpable sense once they’re out of office or no longer regarded as a political threat… with a few “honourable” exceptions, of course (Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit and Tony Blair spring to mind)!
I’ve just checked out some of my blog posts which included a mention of Tony Benn:
1.       He was certainly in my “Dream Team” of February 2008!
2.       He and I shared similar “Railway Children” experiences. He wrote this in October 2008: I always sob at the end of the film The Railway Children, when the father comes back from prison and the steam clears on the railway platform and his daughter runs towards him. Both sadness and great happiness bring out uncontrollable tears in me. My children tease me about these “Railway Children” moments. But I think people’s emotions should come out”. Me too!
3.       I wrote about his lovely book “Letters to my Grandchildren” in October 2012.
A kind, encouraging, thought-provoking, inspirational man… who loved his family.

Friday, March 14, 2014

the grand budapest hotel

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the first Wes Anderson-directed film I’ve seen.
Moira+I went along to the Watershed this afternoon - no, I’ve not even seen “Fantastic Mr Fox” or “The Royal Tenenbaums” (actually, my lovely daughters have just given me “The Darjeeling Limited” on DVD, so within the next few days I will have watched two of his films).
Well, I think I’ve now become a firm fan.
I absolutely loved “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. It’s almost theatrical in the way it’s staged… you get the sense that EVERY shot has been given very detailed consideration; composition is crucial – with a huge emphasis on symmetry and front-on shots (as opposed to “angled”) – as are colour, detail and style. With my somewhat limited ability to recall films, at times it felt as if I was watching a combination of “Amelie” and “Moulin Rouge” (but without the music!).
The other huge and, for me, quite surprising bonus was the performance of Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave (“a concierge at a pastel pink, wedding cake-like hotel” as the Watershed blurb describes him). I haven't always enjoyed his performances in the past, but he really was quite, quite brilliant in this rare comic role.
A very pleasurable experience and a film I think you should definitely see.


Monday, March 03, 2014

a few recent coincidences…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Growing up in Birmingham, I was very fortunate that the city’s art gallery had an outstanding collection of Pre-Raphaelite work (perhaps that’s why I became a fan?).
Over the past few months, I’ve visited Birmingham Art Gallery on a number of occasions and always make straight for the rooms featuring the works of Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Madox Brown, Burne-Jones and Millais and others.
On my last two visits to the gallery, I’d be particularly drawn to two pictures in particular: “Sigismonda Drinking the Poison” (1898-99) and “The Sleeping Beauty” (1903) – see above.
Joseph Edward Southall (1861-1944) was the artist.
I knew virtually nothing about Southall, apart from the fact that he was one of the “Birmingham Group” of artists.
Well, over recent days, I decided to look out for other examples of Southall’s work and was particularly drawn to two paintings he undertook much later in his life (when he was approaching 70 years of age): “The Botanists” (1928) and “The Return” (1930) – again, see above!
At the end of January, I posted a photograph I’d taken of a fresco at the Birmingham Art Gallery as my facebook “cover picture” (entitled “Corporation Street, Birmingham” and dated March 1914). I didn’t know the name of the artist at the time, but very much liked the image – see above. Two days ago, after “researching” online, I discovered the name of the artist… it was, surprise, surprise:
Joseph Edward Southall.
I’ve subsequently looked into Southall’s background. He was born in Nottingham in 1861, but moved to Birmingham at a very early age. He was educated at Quaker schools in York but returned to Birmingham in 1878 and was actually articled as a trainee with the leading local architects' practice Martin & Chamberlain, while studying painting part-time at the Birmingham School of Art (at Margaret Street, I think).
I’ve just completed an elevational drawing of Vittoria Junior School of Arts+Crafts, Birmingham - the secondary school my father attended from the age of 13 (now Birmingham School of Jewellery). The Birmingham School of Jewellery and Silversmithing was established in 1890 in a converted goldsmith's factory as a branch of the School of Art The building incorporated a school for educating subsequent generations of silversmiths and jewellers. The architects for conversion project were Martin+Chamberlain – to whom, you might recall (if you’ve been paying attention) was articled a certain individual by the name of:
Joseph Edward Southall.

Small world!
Photo: top (L>R): “The Sleeping Beauty” (1903) and “Sigismonda Drinking the Poison” (1898-99); middle (L>R): “The Botanist (1928) and “The Return” (1930); bottom: Corporation Street, Birmingham (1914).
PS: Yes, I appreciate that Pre-Raphaelite art isn’t to everyone’s taste (and, frankly, I personally prefer Southall’s later work). I came across this quote from artist/art critic Roger Fry, who described Southall as "a little slightly disgruntled and dyspeptic Quaker artist who does incredible tempera sham Quattrocentro modern sentimental things with a terrible kind of meticulous skill". That’s telling him!