Thursday, August 21, 2014

august 2014 books

still more book stuff:
Mapp+Lucia (E F Benson): I’d not read any of EF Benson’s Mapp+Lucia series of novels before now – about the polite, terribly-English society of the 1930s and a clash of two titans (Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas), who plot and scheme against each other in an effort to be the centre of their social circle. It’s beautifully observed and delightfully funny (and much better than Jeeves+Wooster, in my view). It seems that the only people who work for a living at that time were servants and shopkeepers... the haves and the have-nots (life doesn’t change!). By coincidence, our recent Sussex holiday gave us an opportunity to visit Lamb House in Rye (used by Benson as the model for the “Mallards” house).
Unfurling (Ian Adams): This is a book of poems by my great mate Ian. Ever since I first knew him, Ian’s always had a way with words – the ability to express profound things in a simple, knowing way. Over recent years, he’s increasingly used the vehicle of poetry to help illustrate or support his other writing (and his photographs) and so it’s lovely that he’s now produced this first book of poetry. This is a beautiful book. The fundamental thread is about our awareness of the world, the people around us and ourselves. Many of the poems have a spiritual connection (but are very accessible whatever your background) - about rediscovery, about seeing (and looking), about simple living, about hope, about understanding and awareness, about memory, about places and objects and, crucially, about love. The book is packed with beautiful nuggets that stop you in your tracks… and make you smile or just think afresh. It’s a simple and yet profound book by a writer of great wisdom and creativity. I loved it and know it will be one of those books that I revisit on a very frequent basis.  
Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Truman Capote): It seems very strange that I’ve never read this book before (or, indeed, seen the film), so it now feels good to have done so at last (the book, that is). As you probably know, the book is set in New York of the 1940s where the main character, Holly Golightly, lives a complex life which mixes innocence with gold-digging and integrity with brashness. She’s beautiful, teasing, intelligent, generous and witty… she entertains men at all hours (mainly Mafia gangsters and playboy millionaires) and attracts the affections of almost everyone. Beautifully written and with an excellent, believable dialogue. As a complete aside (the book was first published in 1958), I thought it was interesting to note that one of the other female characters went by the name of “Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood” (did Capote know Maggie Thatcher’s parents I wonder? Almost certainly not… but I found it amusing nevertheless). My edition also contained the following three intriguing stories: “House of Flowers”, “A Diamond Guitar” and “A Christmas Memory”.
Now You Know (Michael Frayn): Published in 1992, more than 20 years before anyone had heard about Edward Snowden, this book delves into the fictitious world of a pressure group dedicated to the cause of open government. I like Frayn’s writing and, initially, I thought it was going to be a fascinating satirical novel about governmental secrecy. Disappointingly, in my view, it became an almost sentimental story about a group of sad, but amusing, characters who are all trying to keep aspects of their own lives secret. Very readable, nevertheless – EXCEPT for Frayn’s decision to tell the story through a series of first-person narratives (featuring all the main characters, but without any indication who was speaking)… but I frequently needed to read on half a page to discover who had actually taken over the dialogue. Very irritating!
At The Pillars Of Hercules (Clive James): As I think I’ve posted before, I just love James’s writing… he’s irritatingly clever, brilliantly funny (or insightful/critical/elegant… delete as necessary) and, it seems, can write/talk about virtually any subject with engaging candour. This is a collection of critical essays, written in 1973-77, which range from the legacy of Auden and Larkin to the likes of Chandler, Solzhenitsyn, Stoppard and Lord Longford – all showing incredible depth of knowledge and exhaustive detail. I freely admit that I hadn’t even heard of many of the writers he was discussing (eg. Robert Lowell, Donald Davie, Kenneth Slessor and Nigel Balchin?). People who perhaps have only ever seen Clive James on television (where he seems to specialise in wonderful one-liners of which Chandler’s Marlowe would be proud) won’t appreciate his huge intellect. Yes, he is opinionated and egotistical, but he also has a gift for literary criticism and a way with words that I’ve always found incredibly impressive - even if he often writes stuff that is FAR too clever for me (there were times in this book that I frequently counted two or three words per page that I hadn’t a clue what they meant… and couldn’t be bothered to find out!). Another absorbing, brilliant book… if you like Clive James, that is!    

Friday, August 08, 2014

mood indigo

For the second time in three days (it must be the holiday season?), I went along to the Watershed cinema. This time I saw Michel Gondry’s film “Mood Indigo” – with Romain Duris playing Colin and Audrey Tautou playing Chloe. The film’s adapted from Boris Vian‘s 1947 novel “The Froth of Days”; it’s set in Paris and tells the story of two lovers who marry (in an underwater ceremony!) after a whirlwind romance, but whose bliss is interrupted by news that Chloe is suffering from a strange illness (she has a water lily growing on her lungs)…
Gondry uses all his own visual inventiveness to create a wonderful, fantastic (literally) and colourful way – with inventor Colin’s bizarre and eccentric creations. The result is visually stunning (and surreal in the extreme) and, at times, very funny… but as the film’s storyline becomes more sombre, so it becomes more monochrome.
My main reasons for seeing the film were clearly Audrey Tautou (of course!) and Paris – plus being intrigued by some of the film images I’d seen. It proved to be a mesmerizingly inventive film (sometimes just a little too ridiculous for me), but also one that I found both surprisingly sad and poignant.
PS: The film title relates to the composition by Duke Ellington, whose music is a continual theme.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

studio ghibli forever: porco rosso

I went to the Watershed again this afternoon to see a film about a talented Italian fighter pilot who’s been turned into a pig by a magic spell.
Yes, really.
Frankly, I certainly wouldn’t have bothered seeing this 1992 film, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but decided to do so on daughter Alice’s recommendation. I’d previously only vaguely heard of Studio Ghibli and its animated films before this week but - although I recognised the beautiful, elegant drawing style - that was the limit of my knowledge (yes, really... again!).
Well, I now feel very pleased that Alice encouraged me to go along because I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was great fun (and I really enjoyed the bold graphics and animation)… and no, I wasn’t the only unaccompanied adult in the audience! In fact, the Watershed has a “Studio Ghibli Forever” Season running throughout August – also featuring “My Neighbour Totoro”, “Princess Mononoke”, “Spirited Away” and “Ponyo”.
I suspect that I’ll be watching all these Studio Ghibli films with grandchildren over the coming years (maybe some of them are just a little too young at present?). I’m looking forward to it!
PS: Although the hero Porco Rosso seems to chain-smoke his way through its entire 93 minute length, the film does contain some really good female role-models.

Monday, August 04, 2014

letter to an unknown soldier...

This is what the 1418-Now website says: “On Platform One of Paddington Station in London, there is a statue of an unknown soldier; he’s reading a letter. On the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of war… we’re inviting everyone in the country to pause, take a moment or two, and write that letter. All the letters the soldier receives will be published here, creating a new kind of war memorial – one made only of words”.
The website remains open until 11pm on 4 August – the centenary of the moment when Prime Minister Asquith announced to the House of Commons that Britain had joined the First World War.

“I rather envy you… you reading that letter from a loved one.
My grandfather Frank, aged 17, was a member of the 8th Brigade Royal Field Artillery and entered the Theatre of War in France/Belgium on 19 August 1914. He was one of the “lucky” ones, he survived. His service war record indicates that he spent a total of 4 years 221 days in France (until April 1919). He never really spoke to us about the war – although it seems that he was on the receiving end of the first German chlorine gas attack at Ypres and, amazingly, also bumped into one of his brothers there too!  
Through access to War Diaries at The National Archives, I’ve managed to follow his Brigade’s “progress” through the war (although sections from 1917/1918 remain incomplete).
What we have NOT got are any of the letters he wrote during the course of the war or any he received from his family and friends… they must have provided some crucial scraps of comfort to all concerned at a time of huge uncertainty and fear.
Frank survived, which, of course, meant that my mother was born… and me, and my three daughters, and my six grandchildren…
Did you survive?
A hundred years on and we try to remember those didn’t.
For me, these are just names (or represent vague thoughts about the futility of war) but, for many, they were and are much more than that”.
Photo: the statue of the unknown soldier on platform 1 at Paddington Station.
PS:  at the time of this posting, the website says the soldier has received 19,167 letters.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

stalin’s daughter

Did you know that Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, became a British citizen and lived in Clifton in Bristol from the early 1990s until 2009? No, neither did I (although I did have a vague recollection that she’d lived in Britain for a time).
Last night Moira+I went to the Tobacco Factory Brewery Theatre to see David Lane’s play entitled “Stalin’s Daughter”. It tells the story of how Svetlana strived to create a new life for herself in Bristol… away from the haunting legacy of her monstrous father (who died in 1953). In a powerful, thought-provoking, one-woman production, Kirsty Cox gives a very impressive performance… as Lane tries to piece together the life of a woman trying to hide from her past and who left almost no signs of her existence in the UK.
I came away from the theatre feeling somewhat drained (despite the play’s relatively short length of 75 minutes)… mainly due to the intensity of the Cox’s performance, but also as I struggled to come to terms with Svetlana’s complex identity issues and background. There were moments during the performance when I found myself wanting to press the pause button – so I could Google “Svetlana Stalin/Svetlana Alliluyeva” and find out more about her life!
Having now done so(!), I realise that her life (she died in 2011) was indeed incredibly complicated… and included political asylum in 1967; three marriages and three children; living in India and the USA (as well as the UK); flirting with various religions and also believing in mysticism... and that’s not the half of it!
A fascinating and intriguing story and a very powerful piece of drama.