Tuesday, September 30, 2014

random reflections on the netherlands…

These are no more than MY memory-jerkers/diary scribbles relating to our wonderful time in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Houten+Tricht (to remind me over the coming months/years!)… in no particular order and certainly not exhaustive:
1.       Just lovely seeing Dick+Dientje at their home in Houten… and their wonderful, generous hospitality.
2.       Dick’s paintings and Dientje’s collages.
3.       Dick’s soups.
4.       Sitting in Dick+Dientje’s garden eating breakfasts and drinking coffee.
5.       No rain and plenty of sunshine!
6.       Dick+Dientje’s lovely “children” – confident, articulate and warm.
7.       EVERYONE speaks English perfectly.
8.       Coming out of Amsterdam railway station and being confronted by a three-storey, full-to-bursting, bike-park and lines and lines of other bike parking.
9.       Bikes/cyclists everywhere (even crowded basement bike parking in student accommodation beside a canal)… and a whole network of generous cycle roads/paths.

10.   Sketching, looking out from our Amsterdam hotel bedroom and, for the entire half an hour, listening to a man in the street whistling a beautiful operatic aria (that I can no longer recall).
11.   Friendly, helpful people.
12.   Lots of beautiful, young, lean people – especially cyclists.
13.   Elegant sit-up-and-beg-bikes.
14.   “Roads” dominated by bikes… adjustment time needed by us to keep a watchful eye out for them when crossing roads (and, obviously, remembering to look left first!).
15.   Amsterdam not as clean as I’d imagined – especially around the station area.
16.   Beautiful canal-side houses - especially at night, when you got to see rooms lit up (even posher than Clifton).
17.   Lovely to be able to walk beside the Amsterdam canals.
18.   Lots of Americans in Amsterdam (often quite loud!).
19.   We didn’t go to Anne Frank’s house, but noticed that there were 50m long queues outside, even at 7pm on a Monday.

20.   Cyclists have priority, then pedestrians… and then vehicles in city centre areas.
21.   Impressed by the railway system (once we’d remembered to get our tickets scanned at the barriers)… and a lovely way to get a “feel” of the country.
22.   Free ferry ride across the harbour (from the railway station) to the EYE film institute for coffee on the terrace.
23.   Dom Tower in Utrecht – dominates the skyline as you approach by train (only wish I’d been brave enough to take photographs from the top!)… and amazed by the massive nave gap between the tower and chancel (which collapsed in a hurricane in 1674)
24.   Drinking coffee and eating delicious apple pastries with Dick+Dientje outside in the Utrecht sunshine.
25.   Gentle walks beside the Utrecht canals.
26.   Meeting up with very good friends Harry+Willeke in Utrecht… and having a lovely time with them (as he’s keen on history, Harry was in his element because it was Open Doors Day) and seeing beautiful places we’d have otherwise missed… and organist Willeke was able to give us the low-down on the impressive church organs we came across.
27.   Wonderful lunch with Harry+Willeke in the courtyard of Grand Hotel Karel V.
28.   Cycling to Tricht (and back… 45km in total) with Dick… a great experience.
29.   Testing out and falling off Dick’s lie-down-on-your-back bike(twice!)… much to the amusement of the others.

30.   Picking apples and collecting walnuts in the orchard at Tricht… and then just sitting, chatting, eating+drinking while watching the sun go down at the end of the day.
31.   EVERYONE (all ages) seems to own at least one bike… and uses them.
32.   Being impressed by the layout of Houten (population nearly 50,000)… re-designed around the bike when the town was enlarged in the 1970s. Bike-lanes everywhere and cars relegated to ring road and access points.
33.   Houten transport/urban design system (and central areas of Amsterdam+Utrecht) means you don’t need a car. Bike and train are all you need.
34.   99% of bikers don’t wear cycle helmets (but there are quite a few who, sadly, feel the need to text whilst cycling!). When I queried the lack of helmets with a friend of D+D, he told me that it had been discussed at length but it was felt that HAVING to wear helmets gave the wrong message (ie. cycling was potentially dangerous)… and, given that bikers are given priority over vehicles, I think they have a point. Clearly, in the UK (where cycling is a minority pastime and the car is king!), safety considerations make sense.
35.   Very lucky having such lovely, generous Dutch friends and to experience much more of the beautiful Netherlands than just Amsterdam and Utrecht.
A truly lovely holiday.
Photo: Dick+Dientje+us


Monday, September 29, 2014

september 2014 books

more book stuff:
Silence (Shusaku Endo): Our latest Book Group book. It’s a profound, disturbing, harrowing novel about a 17th century Portuguese priest in Japan at the time of great persecution of the small Christian community. Superbly-written and hugely thought-provoking… at various times, I felt as if I was reading extracts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison letters or Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (compelling, tragic and unrelenting?). Tough, but brilliant!
The Leavetaking (John McGahern): I’m a great lover of McGahern’s writing and this novel simply re-affirmed such a view. It’s about a young schoolteacher in Dublin and is set during his last day in the school (he was about to be formally fired for having married a divorced non-Catholic woman during a leave of absence year). The book is in two parts – both, essentially, flashbacks. The first covers the teacher's childhood up to the moment of his mother's death and the second to how he met his wife, and how the church authorities terminate his employment. The book is apparently a close reflection on McGahern's own experiences of being dismissed from his teaching post in the early 1960s.
Birthday Letters (Ted Hughes): This book of poems was published in 1998, 35 years after his wife’s (Sylvia Plath) suicide. Up until that time, Hughes had said/written virtually nothing about their life together. I started reading this a little time ago and, frankly (as with much poetry!), struggled to come to terms with it. By chance, my great friend Bob Fieldsend had been reading the book in conjunction with Erica Wagner’s “Ariel’s Gift” (see below) and had found it very helpful. He duly lent me his copy… and it’s been a revelation (which probably says an awful lot about some of my previous endeavours to appreciate poetry!). I came to really love Hughes’s eloquence in expressing his emotions, frustrations, fears, sadness and tenderness about his life with Plath. The result is a simply beautiful, intimate, dark, painful book of poems, published 35 years after Plath’s death (and just before he died in 1998) and (mainly) addressed to her… and dedicated to their two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Many critics, it seems, chose to believe that Hughes’s previous reluctance to write or talk about his wife’s death was an admission of his guilt in their relationship… but it seems that the reality is far more complex.
Ariel’s Gift (Erica Wagner): See above! I think Wagner’s book is absolutely excellent – an academic commentary that provided me with both information and insight about Hughes’s and Plath’s lives and their writing. Sylvia Plath only really received recognition as a poet following her death by suicide in 1963. Plath had first attempted to kill herself in 1953, in the USA before she knew Hughes; this was followed by a breakdown and subsequent electro-convulsive therapy.  Her life seems to have been hugely tormented (even haunted?) by her domineering father who died in 1940 (it seems that Hughes became her father figure in the early years of their relationship), when she was eight and by her resentment of her mother.
Note: tragedy seems to have marked Ted Hughes’s relationships, indirectly or directly – he’d begun an affair with Assia Wevill, not long before he and Plath separated, and she too committed suicide in 1969 (she gassed herself along with her daughter by Hughes); and his son Nicholas hanged himself in 2009, aged 47.
Bundle! (Mark Fieldsend): The author is the son of great friend Bob Fieldsend (and Christine!) - who, somewhat bizarrely, I’ve already referred to above. It’s a book about young twenty-somethings, it’s set in Thame (where we used to live) and, at least in part, it’s about celebrity status. Of course, me being a grumpy old man, I rather detest anything related to the word “celebrity” these days (not to mention some twentysomethings!). I have some reservations about the way the story unfolded - I anticipated the way the book might end about three-quarters through it, but convinced myself that that would be too predictable. I was wrong, my initial thoughts proved correct! But this sounds far too negative – the book’s very readable, frequently ridiculous and funny.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

politics: is anybody out there? does anybody care?

Somehow, last weekend, after the Scottish Referendum which saw a 84.5% voter-turnout, I was heartened to read articles from a couple of journalists making observations such as: “This campaign wasn’t about politicians persuading people how to vote, but people persuading politicians… and “On both sides of the referendum, people were energised by an astonishing proposition: take everything you're used to in politics and imagine you could put it to one side and start again. At that, the people did the talking and politicians were forced to listen”.
Even I felt somewhat encouraged out of my cynicism.
Since then, of course, we’ve had the Labour Party Conference… and I’m afraid I’m now back fighting my fears that the Tories (perhaps even in collaboration with UKIP, perish the thought) will win next year’s General Election and we can all wave goodbye to public services, the NHS and education as we know it… It seems to me that, despite their continuing lead in the opinion polls (although it’s now down to 2% and apparently shrinking on a daily basis), the Labour Party (and, in particular, its leader) hardly comes across as a credible alternative to the current Tory/LibDem lot in the eyes of the country. Given all that has happened over the past 4 years or so, the Opposition SHOULD have been able to make mincemeat of a whole raft of government policies, but it has categorically failed to do so.  
Journalist Kevin McKenna’s article in today’s Observer is entitled “Labour in Scotland is Dying. Does anybody care?” strikes a similar note in some ways… except that I think that his remarks could be applied to the nation at large.
As some of you will already be aware, my political views are “left-of-centre”. For virtually all of my life, the Labour Party has been the political party with which I most closely identified. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that they now seem only just a little to “left” of the Tories (a slight exaggeration perhaps, but you know what I mean!). So, I find myself left unable to give my backing to ANY of the main political parties.
These days, the ONLY party that I feel able to support and vote for (in both local and national elections) is the Green Party.
Sadly, the chances of the Green Party forming the next government is a somewhat remote possibility. The best I can perhaps realistically hope for is for the Green Party to win say 10-20 seats which would enable it work in collaboration with the majority(?) party and be able to influence government policies for good.
I suspect that there are a lot of people who feel similarly about the inadequacies of the Labour Party and have real fears at the prospect of a right-wing Tory government.      
Sadly, the way the current election process is arranged, the outcome of the next General Election is likely to be decided by the outcome of 25 or so marginal seats. It’s very easy to shake one’s head and sit back and watch as one’s worse fears become reality. The alternative might be to hope for some of that Scottish referendum spirit and for people to make demands of their politicians/parliamentary candidates. 
But hoping won’t be enough… we need urgent grassroots action across the country. People’s passion for politics (not politicians!) needs to be galvanised.
I’ve never been a member of a political party, but I think I’m going to join the Green Party.
Photo: is this the government in waiting or just a rather disillusioned shadow cabinet front bench? (photo from The Observer).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

20,000 days on earth

I went to the Watershed this afternoon to see “20,000 days on earth” (directed by Iain Forsyth+Jane Pollard) – a profile of Nick Cave’s first 20,000 days on earth (note: he’s rather more than 10 years younger than me, but I forgot to make a film about my own 20,000th day)... a line in Cave's songwriting notebook calculating how many days he'd been alive inspired the film's title. I’m a bit of a Cave fan so was really looking forward to seeing the film… and then I noticed a pretty ordinary 3 star review pinned to a wall at the cinema (written by Luke Buckmaster in The Guardian) and, as a result, even vaguely contemplated giving the film a “miss”… but I didn’t.
And I’m very glad I DID persevere.
It’s rather cringingly described as an “intimate access to the man himself”(!). The film will probably be given a “documentary” tag , but it’s very much more than that – in my view at least. It’s a film about Cave’s artistic processes and about the creative process in general. I particularly enjoyed Cave’s discussions with a psychoanalyst about his early years; the involvement+banter between Cave and Warren Ellis (musician/writer); and there was a fascinating “archive section” where Cave talks about his huge collection of photographs, notebooks and the like (which has given rise to the film’s digital partner project “The Museum of Important Shit”!). Crucially, again for me, the film also included footage of Cave in the studio and stage… and, ultimately, him performing with The Bad Seeds at the Sydney Opera House. This closing sequence also, very cleverly and impressively, blended archive performance footage with the Opera House concert.
Absolutely fascinating and very well put together. I really enjoyed it.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

where do we go from here?

I’m not a Scot and I don’t live in Scotland… so I didn’t get a vote in last week’s referendum. But I’ve been fascinated by the attitude+views of those who did and by the process… and by the fall-out (which will obviously continue over the coming weeks/months/years). As I get older(!), I find that my political views have become more focussed, but I despair whenever politicians tell us that “we’re all in this together”… when we’re clearly not (the rich+the poor/the haves+the have-nots).
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned by national politicians (of all parties) and by the focus on London and the Westminster establishment (not to mention the yah-boo politics of PMQs).
Unfortunately, I also feel politically naïve, somewhat apathetic and irrelevant.
The 84.5% referendum turn-out was incredibly impressive (and every vote counted!), but I found it extraordinary (but, somehow, not at all surprising) that it was only after THAT opinion poll (some 10 days before the vote?) which gave the “yes” campaign a lead that there was panic amongst the Westminster mafia. And it was only AFTER THAT that we suddenly started hearing all sorts of back-of-a-fag-packet promises about a better deal for Scotland.
In some ways, I’m left feeling fearful for the future of the UK. I find Cameron’s “English votes for the English” knee-jerk announcement on Friday morning to placate the Tory right-wing and the pressure from UKIP worrying (oh… and would he still be Prime Minister of the whole of the UK?). The Labour Party needs to get its act together… very quickly (I thought Anne McElvoy’s comment in today’s Observer was telling: “Miliband’s outing north of the border looked more like the walkabout of a fast-tracked trainee than the CEO of Labour”.
The fact remains that (in the words of Deborah Orr in yesterday’s Guardian… sorry, I don’t read the Telegraph!) “Cameron has already made it clear that Westminster will be doing the talking and debating, and that the electorate will be doing the listening”.
On the other hand, I feel that the Scottish Referendum could actually have a powerful, galvanising affect on British politics. I found these comments (again in the Observer… sorry!) fascinating and hugely encouraging:
1.    “This campaign wasn’t about politicians persuading people how to vote, but people persuading politicians… At some point in late spring, the official yes campaign lost control as spontaneous small groups set themselves up and breakfast tables, lounge bars, bus top decks and hospital canteens began to talk politics. What sort of Scotland? Why do we tolerate this or that? Now, in Denmark they do it this way…” (Neal Ascherson).
2.    “On both sides of the referendum, people were energised by an astonishing proposition: take everything you're used to in politics and imagine you could put it to one side and start again. At that, the people did the talking and politicians were forced to listen” (Armando Iannucci).
The question is: will anything have changed (for the better) by the time of the General Election? There are just 227 days to go!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

juno and the paycock

Moira+I went to the Bristol Old Vic last night to see Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock”. It’s a bleak, stark tale of a Dublin family during the time of the Irish Civil War of 1922-3 (there was a certain irony that we saw a play about the bid to establish an independent Ireland on the day of the Scottish referendum result announcement). It was a time of factionalism, great poverty, high infant mortality, awful slum tenement housing, anger and much bitterness.
It doesn’t really sound like a fun way to spend a Friday night does it!
Well, no, it wasn’t fun… but it was a very powerful story of the divide between rich and poor, the hopelessness of the have-nots and desperate survival. I haven’t yet read any reviews of the play but, in her programme notes, director Gemma Bodinetz concluded: “What’s the point of existing without the possibility of laughter, a good tale well told and hope?”. Well, actually, I don’t think there was an awful lot of laughter last night (some, yes, but not much) and certainly not much hope.
In a strange way, having reflected on the play overnight, I've been reminded of various situations highlighted in various “Who Do You Think You Are?” television episodes - when people uncover tragic events and hopeless circumstances relating to their respective ancestors… AND YET, somehow, their families managed to pull through, against all the odds.
This might all sound very negative as far as last night’s “Juno and the Paycock” is concerned? Well, that wasn’t the case at all. The set, the music and the cast were all hugely impressive. The play had a powerful message for audiences today (the divide between rich and poor) and the leading actors Des McCaleer (Captain Jack Boyle) and Niamh Cusack (Juno Boyle) were both excellent – Niamh Cusack was simply superb.
The play ends on 27 September… if you live in the Bristol area, it’s well worth seeing.


Friday, September 19, 2014


Perhaps I should start this post with a few admissions…
Firstly, I’ve only got back on my bike fairly recently (after a couple of years of virtual non-cycling), so my views might be a little naïve/fervent; secondly, we’ve just returned from a wonderful few days in the Netherlands, where biking is a completely different experience; and, lastly, I ride simply for pleasure and convenience… I’m not a commuter or a long-distance biker!
As many of you will know, I’ve lived in Bristol for the past 11 years or so. It’s a lovely vibrant city and, as far as biking is concerned, it seems we’re very fortunate. In 2008, it was named as the country’s first “cycling city” and, a couple of years later, a study in Cycling Plus magazine named Bristol the most bike-friendly big city in the UK. It’s true that that there are an increasingly number of cyclists, bike shops and traffic-free routes but, as a recent convert to the benefits of cycling, I think there’s an awful long way still to go.
The car is definitely still king here. A good number of motorists still seem to regard bikers as the scum of the earth/third-class citizens (drivers of lorries, buses and white vans seem to come to the fore on this!). Pedestrians actually aren’t much better – all too frequently completely ignoring bike lane markings and then getting irate when cyclists try to weave their way between them.
It’s all SO different in the Netherlands.
Yes, I know it’s pretty flat, but there’s also a completely different mentality when it comes to cycling. The hierarchy of vehicles, pedestrians and bikers is COMPLETELY different. Even in cities (ok, so I can only speak from experience of Amsterdam and Utrecht!), it seems that cyclists have PRIORITY. There are well-designed, designated cycle-lanes everywhere. Pedestrians are, crucially, “aware” of cyclists and take due account when crossing bike-lanes and the like. Motorists are bottom in the pecking order and seem to take due account of this (in terms of speed, manners etc) whenever bikes and vehicles have to share routes. This may sound like wishful thinking on my part but, having seen it in action, I’ve been very impressed. Significantly, there are also LOTS of bike-parking areas (including a massive 3-storey bike-park in Amsterdam!) and the bike-lanes are CLEARLY marked – usually in a different colour/material to roads and pavements.
While we were in the Netherlands, we also stayed a few days in Houten (a commuter town some 9km south-east of Utrecht, with a population of just under 50,000). It has a large number of child-friendly bike paths and, critically, the road network is NOT designed for through traffic. People are encouraged to travel by bike and train… and they DO (and all ages too!).
Cycling has always been a popular form of transport in the Netherlands (most people have bikes - there are apparently more bikes than people!) but, actually, much of the infrastructure has been built since the 1970s… and has continued to be improved.
Investment has been crucial.
I would certainly accept that Bristol has a few issues when it comes to cycling. For example: a) it’s not exactly flat, b) the transport network has to contend with lots of river crossings and c) it’s probably the worst city in the UK when it comes to getting around by car. But, I would suggest that, with some bold thinking, the city could be transformed when it comes to transportation. Afterall: a) you could always fit a small motor to your bike (as many people in Holland do to offset strong winds – a little expensive, yes, but small change compared with car travel)(and/or get the Council to install a bike-lift for getting up Park Street?), b) they have just a few stretches of water and bridges in Amsterdam and seem to cope(!), c) by making the Bristol ring road WORK and reducing car use drastically within/across the city as far as possible - by making it far more inconvenient to use the car, and d) encouraging more people to use bikes by creating LOTS of “bikes+pedestrians only” streets (car use would be tolerated for access only… and car drivers would have to accept that they’re bottom of the pecking order - SO many potential bikers are put off by the fact that they know they’d have to contend with rude, impatient car/lorry/bus drivers on the same street/thoroughfare as them).
Yes, I know I’m probably being far too optimistic/unrealistic and I also appreciate that such changes won’t happen overnight.
It’s a new MINDSET that’s required.  
Photo: this photograph was taken from our hotel window in Amsterdam – the busy street had two bike lanes (one in each direction!) plus pavements… and cars were tolerated for access only.
PS: Before you strike me down, I’d also be the first to admit that there are some pretty poor/intolerant cyclists too!

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

two days, one night

End of the school holidays, so it seemed only appropriate to mark the occasion with a trip to the cinema! I went along to the Watershed this afternoon (yes, I know… it’s ALWAYS the Watershed – but it IS an excellent place!) to see Jean-Pierre+Luc Dardenne’s “Two Days, One Night” featuring the wonderful Marion Cotillard in a ‘deeply affecting social drama’ (in the words of the Watershed’s blurb). Cotillard, as Sandra, suffers from depression and, after a recent long-term absence from work, has been laid off following a ballot of work colleagues who were asked to choose between their EUR1,000 annual bonus or allowing Sandra to keep her job. She ends up being granted a new blind vote when everyone returns to work on the following Monday morning and so launches a desperate weekend bid to convince each of the sixteen workers to change their minds (the original show of hands was 14-2 against her)…
It’s a fascinating, intimate and tough film. It's about defiance, fighting for survival (perhaps that's a little strong?) and about dignity. In many ways, the film reflects these times of (some) management attitudes, short-term contracts and (all too frequently) non-unionised labour… and it's also about people trying to come to terms with depression – and, especially, in the context of family life and tough financial circumstances.
It’s a very powerful, brilliant film (and a strangely uplifting one too) and Marion Cotillard is my new super film idol!