Thursday, June 25, 2015

mr holmes

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Bill Condon’s new film “Mr Holmes” - with Ian McKellen playing the lead role. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much – perhaps a “warm” film (I think I’d seen it described as such in a couple of newspaper reviews?) and with McKellen providing a decent performance as an ageing Sherlock Holmes.
Actually, I was very pleasantly surprised.
Yes, it WAS a “warm” film and, yes, McKellen was impressive (I thought he was wonderful!)… but it was much more than that. It’s based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” and flits between 1947 (with Holmes aged 93) and a case from many years before (which still torments Holmes and was instrumental in him giving up detective work and retiring to Dorset).
This is yet another film (and I’ve seen quite a few in recently and read a fair number of books too) about growing old and confronting one’s own mortality. With Holmes struggling with powers of recollection, this a gentle film about ageing and vulnerability… but also, crucially, empathy.
A rather lovely film and a simply brilliant performance by Ian McKellen.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

june 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Borgias (Mary Hollingsworth): The front cover of Hollingsworth’s book describes the Borgias as “history’s most notorious dynasty” and it would be difficult to dispute this claim. The book outlines the family’s “progress” from the early years of the 13th century to the mid-14th. Even before the election of the first Borgia pope in 1455 (77 year-old Alonso Borgia, choosing the papal name of Calixtus III), advancement and power was only secured through blatant corruption… and a second Borgia pope (Rodrigo, taking the name Alexander VI) followed in 1493. Once in power, other Borgia family members were promoted to ridiculous positions of power and influence… and massive wealth. Certainly, at that time, the idea of celebate popes was something of a joke – Alexander, for example, had a long affair with Vannozza dei Cattanei while still a priest, but before he became pope; and by her had his illegitimate children Cesare Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, Gioffre Borgia, and Lucrezia. A later mistress, Giulia Farnese, was the sister of Alessandro Farnese, and she gave birth to a daughter while Alexander was in his 60s and reigning as pope. Alexander fathered at least seven, and possibly as many as ten illegitimate children, and did much to promote his family's interests (like a 9 year-old being appointed an Archbishop!) - using his offspring to build alliances with a number of important dynasties. He appointed Giovanni Borgia as Captain General of the Church, and made Cesare a Cardinal of the Church - also creating independent duchies for each of them out of papal lands. Two descendants of pope Alexander VI also became queens of England, Scotland and Ireland (Catherine of Braganza married Charles II and Mary of Moderna married James II)! The Borgias even make FIFA look pretty tame by comparison!
Vintage Stuff (Tom Sharpe): Re-read another Tom Sharpe book (well, they make easy summer reading and are entertaining!). I apparently read this one shortly after it was published in 1982… but I couldn’t remember ANYTHING about it! It’s about a very minor public school with assault courses for over-active underachievers, cold showers and beatings – you get the general idea. Predictably farcical.
Vietnam! Vietnam! In Photographs and Text (Felix Greene): I was very much opposed to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. My copy of this book (published in 1966 – one year after large scale US troops were deployed) is an ex-library copy that I bought for 20p at a jumble sale some time ago… and which I’d only really “flicked through” until now. Greene was born+educated in the UK (he used to work for the BBC), but lived most of his life in the USA. The book combines more than 100 awful, stunning pictures by world-renown photographers together with Greene’s cogent comments. I think it’s one of the most shocking, saddening books I’ve ever read – and a powerful indictment of American aggressive intervention in Vietnam. It’s frightening to be reminded of how the US used its giant resources to argue the case for the “defence of freedom”. This is not the place for a history lesson(!), but I AM going to include just a few quotes from the book: “The facts are plain. This war was begun by armed American aggression aimed at perpetuating the unnatural and unintended division of Vietnam into North and South, in full violation of the Geneva Accords of 1954”… “It would probably come as a painful surprise to many Americans to realise how universally the war in Vietnam is viewed not as a ‘complex issue’ but as a simple and blatant act of aggression by the United States”… “morally, politically and militarily unjustifiable”… “We have used our power with great restraint” (President Johnson, May 1966)… “US Air Force flew no fewer than 26,858 sorties against Vietnam in a single week” (Newsweek, October 1965)… Believe me, I could go on and on! It’s a truly remarkable book and, even now, nearly 50 years on, one that you should read if you have an opportunity.
A Month In The Country (JL Carr): This is a rather lovely short novel (first published in 1980 and, apparently, also made into a film in 1987) about two men who meet in the quiet English countryside of a hot summer in 1920. They’re both survivors of the Great War. One (Tom Birkin) is temporarily living in a church uncovering and restoring a historical wall-painting and the other is camping in the next field in search of a lost grave. Birkin is the narrator – looking back in old age of his memories of his idyllic summer spent in Yorkshire (at the very end of the book, he dates his account as 1978), when he felt he’d glimpsed happiness and contentment. However, this is countered by his lack of money, his horrific wartime experiences, the painful break-up of his marriage and things that might have been.
It’s a gentle, tender and elegant book which I read during the course of a beautiful summer’s day.
Britain In The Sixties: The Other England (Geoffrey Moorhouse): The “Other England” is what Moorhouse calls everywhere else other than the “Golden Circle” around London. I was somewhat taken aback by the condition of my rather battered copy of this book… until I realised (rather like “Vietnam! Vietnam! above) that this might be due to the fact that it’s over 50 years’ old (first published in 1964)! How can that be?! Yes, this is definitely a book for ME – because it outlines the time of my youth (I started at university in 1967). Fascinating to be reminded that, at that time, Britain had not yet joined the Common Market (the EU if you’re too young!) and was about to swallow the implications for the nation’s railway network as a result of the Beeching cuts. It’s sobering to realise how communications have changed so dramatically over the past 50 years – at one point, Moorhouse talks glowingly about the huge telecommunication advances everyone had experienced thanks to the introduction of telex and STD! It was written less 20 years since the end of WW2 and the need for slum-clearance throughout the country is referred to constantly (and also the levels of appalling pollution). Moorhouse was also clearly very enthusiastic about what was going on in Birmingham (where I was born and stayed until 1967) in the 1960s – describing it as the “most go-ahead city in Europe”. Yes, much was happening but, in my view, the highway engineers were given far too much of a free hand and, sadly, the quality of much of the architecture (and the materials used) was desperately disappointing. Reading the book today also makes you realise just how many of the country’s key industries of that time have disappeared or changed beyond recognition – mining, textiles, heavy machinery, manufacturing, shipbuilding and steelworks, to name just a few. I was also struck by the following incidental comments: a) talking about age 50-something redundant millworkers in Lancashire having “a life expectation of anything up to 20 years” ahead of them (these days, we might anticipate a few more years!) and b) one person in eight was a car owner in 1964 (it’s now probably more like 1 in 2?).
An absolutely fascinating book - well, to read now at least!

Friday, June 19, 2015

another bristol pilgrimage…

It might have something to do with the fact that our great friends, Gail+Ian Adams, are on Iona this week (and, in all probability, have participated in the weekly pilgrimage walk around the island) that I decided to repeat my own Bristol version (ie. using Jane Bentley+Neil Paynter’s excellent book “Around a Thin Place – an Iona pilgrimage guide” as a resource for my “journey”) – which I’d previously undertaken in September 2012 and in March 2014. This time, I broke my cycling route (yes, bike this year!) into nine sections or stops… pausing for reflections taken from the book, together with my own contemplations.
The weather was absolutely beautiful yesterday (I’d cunningly planned the day around our local forecast!) and it again proved to be a fruitful (and sometimes challenging) time.
As before, I related my stopping points with pilgrimage stops on Iona (and, apart from my starting point, I didn’t choose them in advance):
St Martin’s Cross/setting out on the road was the Ferry Steps, near Temple Meads station; The Nunnery was Castle Park/St Peter’s Church (destroyed in the Blitz); Crossroads was a bench next to St Augustine’s Parade/Baldwin Street/Colston Avenue/Broad Quay; High Point was the top floor of the Galleries’ car park; Marble Quarry was the M-Shed; Columba’s Bay was the Avon Lock Gates adjacent Bennett Way; the Machair was the excellent Brigstow Lounge, Millennium Parade; the Hermit’s Cell was God’s Garden, adjacent Bathurst Basin; and St Oran’s Chapel was a bench on Queen Square (my original choice had been the Quaker Burial Ground/’Redcliff Pit’ on Redcliffe Way – but I’d been somewhat put off by the presence of six rather ‘dodgy-looking’ gentlemen and their bull-terriers! What a cop-out! Sorry).

It proved to be another challenging and thought-provoking time… and I know it’s something I’ll continue to repeat (choosing completely different parts of Bristol… or maybe even elsewhere?) over the coming years.
Photos (from left to right, top to bottom): Ferry Steps; Castle Park; Baldwin Street; Galleries’ Car Park; M-Shed; Avon Lock Gates; Brigstow Lounge; God’s Garden; and Queen Square.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

may-june 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher (Ahn Do-hyun): I suppose this is a modern fable - a story of a distinctive silver salmon living its predictable life, swimming upstream to the place of its birth to spawn and then to die… but also about finding freedom and a harmony with nature in pursuit of a dream. In many ways, it echoes one of my favourite books - Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” - but I’m afraid, for me, it didn’t come remotely close to matching it. Frankly, a bit of a disappointment.
Not My Father’s Son (Alan Cumming): I do like autobiographies/biographies! However, I’m definitely NOT someone who normally reads a book about a “celebrity”! Actually, I picked up this book in Foyles and remembered seeing a “Who Do You Think You Are?” programme about Cumming’s family background. Rather typically (for me!), I don’t know a great deal about Cumming as an actor but, as I flicked through a copy of the book in the shop, I became intrigued. The television programme dealt mainly with his maternal grandfather but, while the book does address this, it also deals with Cumming’s own childhood at the hands of a violent, cruel father. A brave, honest, well-written book.
The Children Act (Ian McEwan): I know McEwan has his critics, but I like his books. This one is about a highly-respected High Court judge who is called on to try an urgent case - for religious reasons, a 17 year-old boy is refusing medical treatment that could save his life. It’s a beautifully-constructed, well-paced, intricate and sensitive story which encompasses relationships, legal argument and music (amongst other things!). Although there were one or two aspects that I found a little far-fetched(?), I thought it was a rather beautiful book – with an ending that didn’t let it down. Highly recommended.
The Enneagram (Richard Rohr+Andreas Ebert): This book provides a model of human personality modelling based on nine interconnected personality types (from a Christian perspective – and showing how it was developed in Egypt by the Desert fathers and subsequently rediscovered by a Franciscan missionary at the turn of the 14th century). I’ve never really been fascinated by personality type identification and so, perhaps not surprisingly, although I found the book interesting and enlightening, I didn’t find it utterly compelling. Perhaps one reason for this is due to the fact that I get rather bogged down (ie. confused!) by the detail. Although Moira+I both agreed on her particular personality type identification, I finished the book thinking (and this will make no sense whatsoever if you’re not familiar with Enneagram!): “I’m probably a FOUR… but perhaps there are also bits of me that are a ONE or maybe even a NINE (actually, on reflection, definitely not a 9!)”. When I asked Moira what she thought (ie. my personality type), she reckoned I might be a ONE… I’ve since re-read the section and, blow me down, I think she just might be right! This is just the first sentence of the first paragraph (entitled “The Need to Be Perfect”!): “ONEs are idealists, motivated and driven on by longing for a true, just, and moral world. They are honest and fair and can spur others to work and mature and grow…”! Rest assured, there are also LOTS of irritating traits (shock horror!) – such as: “struggle against imperfection”… “stick to a precise schedule”… “all ONEs live close to the edge of self-righteousness”!! Who moi?
The Waves (Virginia Woolf): I’d not previously read any books by Woolf. This is a rather lovely, stream of consciousness, poetic novel (first published in 1931). It begins with six children playing in a garden by the sea and follows their lives as they grow up and experience friendship, love and grief. It’s about idealism, ambition, relationships, competition and comparisons… it’s also about wonder, beauty and, sometimes, the apparent pointlessness of life as one grows old. I particularly liked how Woolf inserted descriptions of the sun’s pathway - from dawn to dusk – to represent and introduce the particular periods of the characters’ lives.  At times, I found it difficult to fully understand the train of thought, but very beautiful nonetheless. I probably now need to read “To The Lighthouse”!


Friday, June 12, 2015

listen up philip

Went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” - featuring the excellent Jason Schwartzman (Philip) in the role of an obnoxious, egotistical, completely selfish, insecure, insufferable novelist (you get the general idea). It’s one of those films that is at times very funny, but which also makes you cringe with discomfort on occasions!
Philip is a profoundly awful person… but he does come out with some wonderful lines. For example, his writing hero Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce) – an older version of Philip, but with a string of successful novels behind him – invites him to escape New York for his country retreat… Philip explains the situation to his girlfriend (who obviously has to stay behind in New York) as follows: “I hope this will be good for us… but especially for me”! Also a very good performance by Elizabeth Moss (his girlfriend).
Certainly nowhere near the best film I’ve seen this year, but an entertaining one nevertheless.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

still searching… or not?

Last weekend, Moira and I went along to a retreat at the Carmelite Priory in Oxford. It was hosted by our brilliant friends Ian and Gail Adams and attended by some lovely people (including two of our lovely buddies from our days in Thame). The sun shone. The venue and location were ideal. The format and content of the weekend were perfect – stimulating and thought-provoking, but also providing time for reflection.
But (and you just KNEW there was a “but”, didn’t you!), for me, it quietly underlined that I’m still very much in a spiritual wilderness… and have been for the last two years or so (or should that be ten?).
I’ m very happy and content. I’m thoroughly enjoying my retirement. I lead a very active life and am involved in LOTS of different activities.
I feel VERY fortunate.
But I’m also aware that, these days, my spiritual life is virtually non-existent. I hardly ever “pray” (in a conventional sense) and I don’t read the bible. Although I read a fair number of “religious” books/articles and follow various links via the social media, realistically, I’m aware that I live my life with very little reference to the Christian faith I’ve had for the past 40 years or so.
I’m lazy… I can’t be bothered to pray.
In fact, there are times when I simply don’t see the need for having a faith at all – I’m perfectly ok as I am…
And yet, I also have a strange sense that I’m being told: “yes, it’s fine if you feel like this at present… don’t worry, I’ll stand by you anyway… and, when you’re ready to talk again, I’ll still be here”…
Photo: woodland at Carmelite Priory, Oxford.

Friday, June 05, 2015

le tour de normandie

I’ve just returned from a pretty amazing five day golf tour of Normandy. It was brilliantly organised by my great mate StevieE and eight of us (Ken, Christian, Jonathan, Howard, Andy, Mark, Steve and I) paraded our talents over the following golf courses (and clubhouses!): Wimereux, Hardelot: Les Pins, Le Touquet: La Mer, Belle Dune and Aa St Omer. All five courses were stunning – both in terms of beauty and difficulty!
The weather forecast leading up to the tour looked pretty bad but, in the event, we only had one day when it rained virtually non-stop… and, indeed, the sun shone brightly for a couple of days.
From a golfing perspective, I was somewhat apprehensive (slight understatement!) at the prospect of playing such challenging courses having only played three rounds of golf in the past two years… and, at times, it really DID feel like torture – standing over the ball and not having clue as to its final destination! But, in the event, I was able to muddle along reasonably well (and even won at Belle Dune!).
Everyone got on really well (despite Andy and Mark suffering from “tour tummy” – or something like that!) and we had a marvellous time. I have to say that, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, access to Normandy was incredibly easy and quick (especially if Steve is driving!).
Another bonus was being in France again… and enjoying the French countryside, food and, in particular, the towns of Le Touquet and Montreuil. Stunning scenery and elegant architecture (and people!).
A wonderful time spent with lovely people (including two of my best mates, Ken and Steve).
I’m a very lucky man.
Photo: Jon, me, Howard, Mark, Andy, Christian, Steve and Ken in front of the New Zealand rugby team at the Hardelot: Les Pins club (“The Haka and the Hackers”?).
PS: Although he will hate me saying this, my place on Le Tour was entirely thanks to StevieE – who gave me my “ticket” as a Christmas present (really!)! The word “generous” doesn’t come close to describing his generosity. As I say, I’m a VERY lucky man to have such a wonderful friend.