Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Another trip to the Watershed cinema this afternoon – this time to see David Gordon Green’s bleak and violent film, “Joe”. Based on the 1991 novel by Larry Brown, the film focuses on the life of Joe Ransom (played by Nicolas Cage) - a man with a pretty brutal past, a drinker, a gambler and someone has a long-running feud with one of the local tough guys. But he’s also a trusting and inspiring man to many within the local community (Ransom employs a road crew of labourers to poison trees on behalf of a local lumber company – the government doesn’t allow healthy trees to be felled!). At the start of the film, he employs a 15 year-old boy (a very willing and able worker) and Ransom takes him under his wing. The boy’s father (wonderfully played by Gary Poulter – a former true-life down-and-out who sadly died not long after the film’s completion) is a monstrous thug and abusive drinker who is forever smacking his son. Ransom is aware of the situation and decides to intervene (rather than ignore it and allow the boy to sink into the sort of darkness that once consumed him)… despite the consequences.
Frankly, I’m not a great fan of Nicolas Cage… but I thought he was excellent in this film. It’s definitely NOT one of those gentle films you might watch on television on a wet Sunday afternoon, but it’s definitely worth seeing!

golfing again…

I last played golf on 1 November 2012 (that’s 19 months ago). It proved to be a painful experience… some hip pain, but much worse was that I experienced sharp shooting pains down my right leg virtually every time I hit a shot.
So, ten weeks after my hip replacement, I tried again… and played golf with my great golfing mates Pete, Steve and Ken at my former golf club in Oxford (Studley Wood)… in glorious sunshine (and, somewhat amazingly, on a virtually empty golf course - was it a case of “Mad dogs and Englishmen”?... ok, not quite, Ken is a joint UK/USA citizen these days!)
As far as I was concerned, the quality of the golf was entirely unimportant – the crucial thing was that I was actually PLAYING golf again (or at least trying to) with my old, regular golfing buddies (in the “old days”, we used to play EVERY Friday afternoon, 12 months a year).
For the record, we “tossed” for partners and Ken+I took on Pete+Steve…
Ridiculously, I started by scoring a par (ie. the score you SHOULD get if you were a “scratch” or zero handicap golfer) on the first hole… followed by another par on the third!!
In the end (my fellow golfers had generously allowed me to play off a handicap of 22 at the start – when I used to play regularly, 12 years ago, my handicap was 15 – but soon slashed this to 18), Ken+I won the game easily… and I finished with five “proper” pars for the round (and, when I’d checked the scorecard afterwards, found that I’d actually played the round to a 18 handicap). As you might imagine, my so-called friends gave me a fair amount of “stick”… accusations of faking my injury to gain sympathy and achieve a higher handicap and accusations of hours of practice on the golf range (if only!) etc etc.
In the event, I was so relieved and thankful that I’d been able to play an entire round of golf (and walk the whole way round) completely pain free… and it really was lovely to meet up with my great mates again.
It feels quite miraculous and I’m very grateful to the NHS!
Photo: golfing-selfie (Steve, Pete, Ken+me)!
PS: I don’t expect to maintain such reasonable golf scoring… I should point out (to the golfers among you) that I holed a fair number of putts yesterday (and this only happens once in a blue moon).
PPS: I finished the round by hitting my ball into the lake (twice!) on the 18th!


Sunday, July 27, 2014

mount pleasant terrace street party

I’m not entirely sure, but I think the street party held in our street today was the first one for nearly 70 years - since the party held in 1945 to mark VJ Day (I met a bloke named Roy who used to live at number 44 and who showed me photographs of the event). I also have to admit that a) I had absolutely nothing to do with the planning/organisation of our street party, b) I didn’t participate in any of the organising or setting up of the event and c) I simply turned up (somewhat embarrassed) at 2.30pm carrying a couple of bottles of wine and three chairs (note: Moira also made excellent cake!)… and we later brought along some burgers and salad for the BBQ.
I have to admit that it wasn’t something I was particularly enthusiastic about or looking forward to… but I freely admit that I was WRONG.
In the event, lots of people turned up – including lots of neighbours I’d never met. There was music, games, food, drink and… crucially, conversation.
It was simply brilliant.
I met lots of people I’d never spoken to before today. Children played happily… without the threat of cars. There were an awful lot of friendly, happy people enjoying themselves… and I was one of them!
Simple pleasures... with lots of people delighted to be celebrating the community in which they lived.
Happy day!
Photo: the truly amazing Roy Gallup... and just one of his magnificent creations...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

july 2014 books

yet more stuff:
J B Priestley (Dulcie Gray): This is a short biography of essayist, playwright, novelist, broadcaster and journalist JB Priestley written by actress/writer and long-time friend of Priestley, Dulcie Gray, and published in 2000. Although I’m now a little wiser about the man (but Wikipedia would probably have provided me with a better background), it’s not exactly an academic book – actress Gray focuses, somewhat predictably, on the theatrical (and Priestley’s various mistresses!). What I hadn’t appreciated was that he wrote an article “Britain and the Nuclear Bomb” which sparked off the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Tales From A Long Room (Peter Tinniswood): I came across this when attempting to re-organise some of our bookshelves and, once I’d started to re-read it, just had to finish it. Published in 1981 (when I first read it), it’s a completely irreverent, entirely non-politically-correct and VERY funny (you probably need to like cricket, as it’s full of references that only “old” cricket-lovers would appreciate). The book pretends to be a collection of tales recounted to the author by the “Brigadier” – who “loves fine claret, Vimto, quail in season, barrage balloons, blotting paper, EW Swanson and his sister Gloria”. Glorious!
Ancient Light (John Banville): This is a story, set in 1950s Ireland - when the narrator was a 15 year-old schoolboy - but recounted some 50 years later, about his illicit and steamy meetings with a 35 year-old woman. The narrator recalls this relatively brief episode ten years after the death of his daughter, as he tries to make sense of the boy he was. I found reading it, at times, a strangely uncomfortable experience (not that I had any similar experiences in my own youth, I hasten to add!), but was eventually won over by Banville’s skill as a writer and a story-teller (with some reservations). Like the only other Banville book I’ve read to date, “The Sea”, it’s a book about coming to terms with death, events from his childhood and matters of memory and experiences.  
Jill (Philip Larkin): The novel’s set in war-time Oxford of 1940 and recounts a northern boy’s first term at an Oxford college… where he experiences privileged southern life, and snobbery, for the first time. Jill is the name of his imaginary sister who he invents to try to impress his roommate (a well-off, public school-educated, southerner) before he becomes infatuated with a real-life Jill, called Gillian… Larkin wrote the book in 1943, when he was 21 and an undergraduate of St John’s, Oxford. Although Larkin’s experiences of Oxford are hugely different to mine (I didn’t attend an Oxford college, just the school of architecture on Headington Hill, and 27 years after the book’s setting), there were parts of it that reminded me of my own first experiences of Oxford… as a working-class boy from Birmingham (Larkin was born in Coventry) and having the feeling that everyone else seemed to be far more knowledgeable, far more experienced and far more worldly-wise than me. It’s not a classic, but I certainly enjoyed the book – with its evocation of one of my favourite cities and vague memories of my youth!
Searching for God (Cardinal Basil Hume): This is a book, published in 1977, adapted from talks given by Basil Hume to Benedictine monks, when he was Abbot of Ampleforth. It’s a really beautiful, profound and compassionate book and its guiding principles are still relevant for the general reader and monk alike as they were for the members of the monastic community some 50 years ago. The book provides a real sense of Hume as a very spiritual, wise and humble man and, most certainly, as a man of prayer. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

the tiger and the moustache

Moira+I went along to the very warm(!) Brewery Theatre tonight to see Saikat Ahamed’s acclaimed one-man show (returning to the Brewery Theatre after a national tour). We’d previously seen Saikat in a number of local productions – including Cinderella: a Fairytale, Treasure Island, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (which also included Felix in the cast) – so we just KNEW it was going to be good! However, this show was very different in format… not only was he appearing on his own, but he’d also written the play.
It’s a semi-autobiographical piece about the birth of Bangladesh and Saikat traces the journey of his mother from the frightening time of partition in 1947 up to the present day. It’s a completely captivating performance (he’s a brilliant story-teller). It’s energetic, sad, funny, evocative and beautifully informative.
Quite, quite brilliant.  
PS: Tomorrow (26 July) is the last performance of the tour… I suspect that it’ll be another sell-out but, if you are free, I suggest you check if there are any tickets still available… you WON’T be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

uk and the arms trade

Yes, I probably have a very simplistic view of the world of politics and global business, but news that the UK was exporting arms to Russia (despite David Cameron’s previous assertion that an absolute arms embargo had been put in place) should come as no surprise. According to a cross-party group of MPs, there are more than 200 licences in place to sell arms to Putin’s government.
Please note, I’m certainly NOT claiming that this is some sort of Tory conspiracy, because I’m fully aware that ALL UK governments over recent decades have been actively encouraging the growth of arm sales in this country.
I find it all SO depressing.
I suggest you read this article by Owen Jones in today’s Guardian to get a sense of the scale of the UK arms trade.
Presently, the only meaningful constraint on arms exports is political embarrassment. Restrictions on arms sales are put in place when particularly shaming sales are uncovered
or when a buyer, to the Government’s apparent shock, uses the weaponry it has bought.
UK governments have consistently tried to justify the arms trade on the basis that:
a)    Arms exports are important for national security
b)   They’re vital to the UK economy and jobs, and
c)    They’re stringently regulated.
The “Campaign Against Arms Trade” argues that such “justifications” are all false.
Here are some extracts from CAAT’s website:
1. The 55,000 arms export jobs comprise less than 0.2% of the UK workforce.
2. The exports themselves are less than 1.5% of total UK exports, and even this is an overestimate of their importance as 40% of the value of the exports was imported in the first place.
3. Arms exports are subsidised by the taxpayer (27% UK Government research expenditure is spent on arms and 54% UK Trade+Investment staff committed to selling arms).
4. There is an engineering skills shortage.
5. High profile arms export deals rarely result in significant UK jobs as production moves overseas. In August 2010, BAE sold 57 Hawk jets to India in the headline deal of a David Cameron-led trade delegation to the country. All of the aircraft will be made in India and, while the deal is worth £700 million, it will generate only 200 jobs in the UK.

Of the 16 countries identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as locations of major armed conflict in 2009, the UK sold arms to 12.
In the Foreign Office Report (2010) on Human Rights and Democracy, the following countries were “UK arms buyers” on the Foreign Office’s list of countries with “the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns”:
Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Vietnam and Yemen.
And it’s ALL being done in OUR name.

Monday, July 14, 2014

yes… women bishops at last

The Church of England Synod’s vote in November 2012 against women bishops marked the end of my time worshipping in the Anglican Church. At that time, I posted this blog and said that, following the vote, my "separate, personal, lonely journey starts today”.
So, you can perhaps imagine my enthusiastic response to today’s news that Synod has overwhelmingly voted to allow women bishops (only 45 lay members of the synod voted against it and 152 in favour. The majorities among bishops and clergy were even greater).
I’m absolutely delighted and relieved by today’s outcome… and delighted for so many of my Anglican/Christian friends.
So today’s decision means that I can abandon my futile(?) protest against the institution that calls itself the Church of England… well, actually, I’m afraid not.
Yes, for the past 18 months or so I HAVE been on a separate, personal, lonely spiritual journey… but, in that time, I’ve found myself reeling against the institutional church on so many things and I certainly don’t think I’m currently anywhere near returning to the Anglican Church fold - I won’t rule it out at some time in the future but, for now, I’m continuing in my spiritual wilderness.
Since November 2012, I’ve read many books that I’ve found helpful (and, indeed, I’ve re-read books that I’d previously been encouraged by). Books by Richard Holloway, Ian Adams, Basil Hume, Jonathan Sacks, John O’Donohue, Peter Millar, Kathy Galloway, Mourid Barghouti, Kader Abdolah, Dave Broom, Billy Collins, Tony Benn, Martyn Percy, Sara Maitland, Alice Munro, Jane Bentley+Neil Paynter have all proved invaluable… and I’m sure there will be others in the future.
Yes, I’m sure there will be people who read this post and want to shake some sense into me… and give me any number of reasons to return to the Church of England. The fact remains that, while I’m still unsure about my own faith journey, it’s far better for me to remain in “exile” than to return still an angry man (perhaps a little over dramatic, but I was certainly finding myself coming out of church after a service regularly feeling angry and frustrated… and, despite today’s good news, I don’t think the frustration (and the anger?) will have subsided sufficiently.
So, I'm still wondering and wandering...

june/july 2014 books

More book stuff:
The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer): This is our Book Group’s next book (but I’ve read it so far in advance of our next discussion that I might have to read it again!). It’s a novel about a young schizophrenic man struggling with guilt. It’s a story of grief, madness and loss. It’s a deeply moving, funny and incredibly impressive first novel (as well as a performance poet and writer, Filer is also a registered mental health nurse). It’s quite, quite brilliant – one of those compelling books that you just want to read in one sitting.
The Men Who Stare At Goats (Jon Ronson): I haven’t seen the film but, as you might guess from its title, this is something of a bizarre book. I spent much of the time reading the book thinking the author had made up the entire narrative… but, worryingly, as Ronson tells readers in the book’s first five words: “this is a true story”. It’s the author’s investigation into “psychological warfare” techniques used by America’s elite Special Forces. I’ve just read Tim Adams’s review in the Observer from 2004 which ends as follows: “…not only a narcotic road trip through the wackier reaches of Bush's war effort, but also an unmissable account of some of the insanity that has lately been done in our names”. I can only agree with him. The book is hilarious, incredible and frighteningly scary.
Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Janet Malcolm): I don’t think I’ve ever read any of Gertrude Stein’s work so, when I bought this in the £3 bookshop, it rather felt as if I was going “out on a limb” in choosing this. I was somewhat intrigued to learn more about the forty-year relationship of Stein (American writer of novels, poetry and plays, fervent collector of Modernist art, friends of the likes of Picasso and Hemingway) with Alice Toklas and how this “pair of elderly Jewish lesbians” had survived the Nazis whilst living in France. Sadly, this never really gets explained – neither Stein nor Toklas seems ever to have acknowledged to anyone, least of all themselves(!), that they were Jewish and therefore in a highly vulnerable position. I have to say, I really came to dislike Stein as I read the book - she comes across as someone shamelessly certain of her own literary genius; I found many of her quoted passages unreadable and/or hugely awkward; and she was a supporter of Franco and an early advocate of Hitler (who, she suggested, should be given the Nobel prize for getting rid of conflict in Germany!). Although Stein had willed much of her estate to Toklas, including their shared art collection (some of them Picassos) housed in their apartment, the couple's relationship had no legal recognition. As the paintings appreciated in value, Stein's relatives took action to claim them, eventually removing them from Toklas's residence while she was away on vacation and placing them in a bank vault. Toklas then relied on contributions from friends as well as writing to make a living. It all goes to make a remarkable story – but, sadly, one which I personally found didn’t quite make its mark.
Of Human Bondage (W Somerset Maugham): This is a very long book (some 700 pages) and, given its weight and the resulting implications for trying to read it in bed, is the best argument for converting to a Kindle – but no, I’ll stick to the old fashioned book format  (at least for the time being)! I’ve really enjoyed every Somerset Maugham book I’ve read and this was no exception. This is probably his best-known book (published in 1915) and tells the story of an orphaned boy who is raised by a religious aunt and uncle and who leaves home (and school) at 18 to pursue a career as an artist in Paris and then on to London to study to be a doctor… but it’s also a book about poverty, sexual infatuation, freedom, beauty and connection. For me, Somerset Maugham writes with a simple elegance that I find very appealing.  
The Ascent of Rum Doodle (W E Bowman): A rough description of this book might be: “Mountaineering’s equivalent of ‘Three Men in a Boat’”. It tells the completely fanciful story of a group of English gentlemen who set out to conquer the ascent of a spoof 40,000-and-a-foot peak. Published in 1956 (the author had never actually climbed a mountain!), this is an outrageous, ridiculous but funny book… featuring (amongst other things): a team guide who was constantly getting himself lost (search parties had to sent out); a hapless team photographer who accidently, but predictably, ruined the entire stock of used film of the expedition; a team doctor who insisted on including several cases of champagne as part of the medical supplies etc etc. It’s a short, amusing and very readable book.

Friday, July 11, 2014


I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see “Boyhood”, the much-acclaimed Richard Linklater film – filmed with the same group of actors over a twelve year period (from 2002 to 2013). It’s certainly a remarkable film in terms of its concept and, clearly, the critics have absolutely loved it. For example, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw (whose opinions I value highly) gave it a 5-star rating and described it as “one of the great films of the decade” and Robbie Collin in the Telegraph reckons it was “an achievement of a lifetime” (and also gave it 5 stars).
There were indeed some excellent things about the film, such as:
a)      I loved the time-lapse study of a boy aged 5 growing into manhood and was genuinely intrigued to see him develop physically (and how the various characters changed/evolved)
b)      I liked Mason’s “ordinariness” as a character and the fact that the film wasn’t based on a series of big dramatic set-pieces.
c)       The principal family characters were beautifully portrayed.
d)      I suspect everyone who sees the film will automatically find themselves reflecting on their own lives (as children, as parents, as siblings…).
e)      Very cleverly put together and with beautiful aesthetic consistency.
But (and perhaps I shouldn’t admit this), I actually found the film somewhat tedious, contrived and even banal, at times…  at one stage, the “boy” Mason character (played by Ellar Coltrane) mumbled to his birth-father (played by Ethan Hawke) “what’s the point of it all?” and, in some ways, this could be my own reaction to the film.
Why aren’t I raving about the film when, it seems, everyone else is?
Maybe I just found the American way of life depicted rather depressing? Perhaps it was that it didn’t really have a point to make and was simply trying to tell a story of “normal” (whatever that is) family life? Maybe it was because the whole thing was false… real actors in a real time-lapse telling a completely made-up story?
No doubt, I’ll continue to reflect on the film over the coming days but, as things stand, I would only give it three or four stars!
But hey! Don’t let me put you off… afterall, everyone else seems to have enjoyed it!

Saturday, July 05, 2014

the hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared

I’d previously read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Jonas Jonasson’s bizarre and entertaining book about the unlikely adventures of a man who avoids attending his own 100th birthday party by climbing out of the window of his room in an old people’s home. It therefore seemed only right that I saw Felix Herngren’s film version when it opened at the Watershed yesterday afternoon. The book version is long and complicated, so I was fascinated to see how successful (or not) the director would be in adapting it into a film of less than 2 hours in length. In the event, I thought he did pretty well. My one real reservation relates to having one actor (49 year-old Robert Gustafsson) portraying a character who ages from a late teenager to a centenarian (complete with very heavy make-up). Compared with the book, this was always going to be difficult and, for me, so it proved.
One of the entertaining bonuses (if slightly annoying at times!) was that, somewhat predictably for matinee performances, the vast majority of the modest audience consisted of “old people” (yes, I know, just like me… but even a little older!) who clearly had no prior knowledge of the story (or the book) and spent much of the afternoon conversing in rather loud stage whispers about the film’s plot and/or “ooohing and aaahing” when surprising things happened on screen!
If you’re up for a romp, this film’s for you!