Thursday, December 31, 2015

the lady in the van

Moira+I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Nicholas Hytner’s film “The Lady in the Van” – based on Alan Bennett’s diaries. Maggie Smith plays the role of Miss Shepherd (as the Watershed blurb describes her: “a woman of uncertain origins who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years”). In fact, Moira+I had seen Maggie Smith AND Alan Bennett (playing himself!) in the stage version at the Queens Theatre, London in 1999 (actually it opened in November 1999, so we probably saw it in early 2000?)… and we’ve still got the programme to prove it! I’d seen the trailer for the film and, frankly, I didn’t think much of Alex Jennings (who played Bennett in the film) – but I’ll put up my hands and admit that I was wrong… he was very good.
Anyway, the film is absolutely great!
I’d forgotten that (in real life) this snarly, needy, old woman had, in fact, once been a concert pianist… and it reminded me of how, many years ago, I’d been somewhat dismissive (only in my own head, not out loud!) of a man named Ron, who’d played the organ at our church for over 50 years. VERY unfairly, I’d regarded him as being well past his sell-by date in terms of his playing ability (isn’t that awful!) and then heard someone describe him as having once been a wonderful athlete in his day… and a county sprint champion indeed! I think we’re all rather inclined to be somewhat dismissive of the elderly (hang on, I’m elderly now!) and are apt to forget that they might once have achieved significant things in their lives.
I digress!
Anyway, when we saw her on stage, 16 years ago, Maggie Smith was simply brilliant… but, I have to say, she was EVEN better(!!) in this film version (and clearly really enjoyed playing the role again).
SURELY, this was an Oscar-winning performance? She was stunningly good.
You need to see this film.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

december 2015 books

End of year book stuff:
The Creative Year (Jane Lee): This book records Jane Lee’s year as an Artist in Residence at St Michael’s+All Angels church, Windmill Hill here in Bristol. It’s clearly a bold venture by the church - which saw it as a new way of connecting with its parish. The book provides an account of the year in terms of the liturgical year (beginning in Advent). By its very nature, the resulting art (which encompasses paintings, drawings, glass, textiles, photography, music and words… from both adults and children) is somewhat mixed… but, as the book emphasises, creative work involves “taking risks”. I found it interesting/encouraging how much the local arts trail (Art on the Hill) featured in the book. Jane Lee herself is a very gifted artist who frequently produces brilliant and often inspirational work. However, I found myself somewhat frustrated at times – often wanting to learn more about the background to a particular project (with additional insights from Lee and some of the other artists), but also wanting to limit other sections which didn’t particularly appeal to me personally(!).     
The Eye In The Door (Pat Barker): This is our Book Group’s next book (published in 1993) and is the second volume of Barker’s “The Regeneration Trilogy” (I clearly need to read volumes one and three!). It’s set in 1918 and centres on the trauma suffered by First World war veterans. It weaves fact and fiction and provides a chilling reflection on the repercussions of that war. Whilst it could be described as an anti-war novel, it also highlights the war's persecuted sexual and political dissenters. In reviewing the novel, Jonathan Coe emphasised Barker’s commitment to the process of reclaiming silenced voices. It certainly does that. An impressive, absorbing and disturbing book.
Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comic Legend (Robert Ross): I’ve always loved Feldman’s extraordinary humour – Buster Keaton was his absolute hero. Always an anti-establishment figure; excluded from numerous schools; sleeping rough on occasions; went to Paris (aged 15) in 1949 to be a writer, artist and jazz musician (as you do); eventually established himself as a writer, initially for radio (alongside his long-time business associate and friend Barry Took)… by 1974, he’d become THE television comedy performer and a Hollywood film star. Alongside his “rock, soul mate” wife Lauretta, he lived a life of frequent wild parties, booze and drugs. Hollywood ultimately took its toll (a five film deal with Universal Studies was cancelled after just two) and he died of “a massive heart attack” in 1982, at the age of just 48. The book provides a fascinating and amusing background to his life as the influential architect of British comedy and I particularly enjoyed reading of Feldman’s experiences with the BBC’s hierarchy (eg. Took+Feldman were paid a COMBINED 125 guineas fee per radio script in 1966 – for work that is today regarded as masterpieces). The book reminded me of my favourite Feldman sketch: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Golfer. John Cleese described Feldman as a “true cultural icon”… and he undoubtedly was.
On The Elgin Marbles (William Hazlitt): Writer/arts critic/biographer/political commentator/philosopher William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was regarded as the “master essayist” of his time and this book provides a series of extended essays – including three on the Elgin Marbles (purchased by the UK government from Lord Elgin and passed to the British Museum in 1816)(and, yes, I think it’s time for them to be returned!). The prose is, obviously, of its time and Hazlitt’s frequent theme is a conviction that it’s impossible to separate art from nature. At times, he comes across as an educator (rather like Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation” TV series of the 1960s) but, he also has a hectoring style that one might more associate with the likes of John Ruskin (1819-1900). Interesting stuff… even if I did frequently feel rather intellectually-challenged and inadequate!
That’s all for 2015!
Footnote: Perhaps not surprisingly, retirement has provided me with a lot more time (and desire) to read! What I DO find a little surprising is that I’ve gone from reading say 5 books a year to reading more than a book a week!
Somewhat pathetically (thanks to this blog – which acts as a memory-jogger as much as anything!), I’ve just worked out that a) I read 69 books during the course of 2015, and b) I’ve read more than 300 books (305, to be precise!) over the past 5 years (61 a year on average)… no wonder our bookshelves are getting somewhat overloaded!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

christmas cheer?

Is it just me?
I’m feeling hopeless, powerless and very depressed about political decisions that are being made “in my name”, but about which I can do virtually NOTHING to influence…

In January 2015, the government pledged not to frack under our national parks.
In December 2015, MPs voted to frack under our nation parks….
Note: George Osborne's father in law, Lord Howell, is a fossil fuel lobbyist. Since 2000, he has been the chairman of the British Institute of Energy Economics, and chairman of the Windsor Energy Group since 2003.

In 2010, you will recall those heart-warming photos of Mr Cameron (and the huskies) when he promised that his government would be “greenest government ever”.
In July 2015, however, in a period that some environmentalists have described as the “worst period for environmental policy in three decades, energy+climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, scrapped support for onshore wind farms; announced the axing of subsidies to the solar power sector; removed subsidies for coal or other fossil-fuelled power stations which are converting to wood or another biomass fuel; killing the flagship “green homes” scheme; selling off  some 70% of the green investment bank (launched in 2012 with £3.8billion public money); watering down incentives to buy greener cars; giving up on zero carbon homes; abandoned targets to keep increasing the proportion of revenue from environmental taxes… 
But, hey, at least nuclear power is safe(really?) - thanks to the help, support and money of the Chinese government (it’s all about “security”, remember).
Note: Hinkley Point will be the most expensive plant in the world, at £24bn… and, to pay for it, monumental subsidies lasting until 2060 (that’s 45 years from now!) will dwarf any PFI ever devised.

In December 2015 (this week), the government cuts subsidies for solar power… just a week after the climate change Paris summit. To cut support at this stage not only dashes hopes of Britain leading the way in meeting the 1.5 degree target set in Paris last week, but also risks putting thousands of people out of work…

And in other, non-environmental, stuff…
In April 2015, Mr Cameron insisted that the government wouldn’t cut family credits.
In September 2015, the government announced family credit cuts (and it’s only thanks to the House of Lords that the measure wasn’t ultimately introduced)…

In July 2015, MEPs voted on the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade+Investment Partnership) for the first time. The majority of MEPs across Europe gave their first thumbs up to the deal (as far as I’m concerned, putting big business over citizens’ rights). So now TTIP will keep being negotiated with America. Frighteningly, the trade negotiations have been carried out mostly in secret. In my view, you SHOULD be very worried… it will have HUGE (and damaging) implications for the NHS; Food and Environmental Safety; Banking Regulations; Privacy; Jobs; and Democracy. Did we get a chance to vote on TTIP? No we didn’t…

In August 2015, Mr Cameron created 26 new Conservative peers (the PM has now created more peers than ANY other modern prime minister)…

In November 2015, the government decided to cut funding to opposition political parties by 19%.

In December 2015, the UK parliament voted to bomb Syria…

Last, but not least (and, hey, I could probably list another dozen grievances!):
The government wants to restrict Freedom of Information laws (that help citizens expose dodgy lobbyists, poor government decisions and threats to public safety). They want to water down our right to hold them to account and have set up an Independent Commission to review matters…
Note: It was a FOI request that exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal. And it was another FOI request which exposed that a third of NHS contracts were being handed out to private companies.

Sorry… I know I must sound a bit like Scrooge.
But, maybe I’ll wake up and it’ll all have been a nightmare?
Happy, happy Christmas!!


Monday, December 14, 2015

november-december 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver): We’ve had this book on our shelves for the last 15 years. Moira had recommended that I read it… but I’ve only just got around to doing so. As a result, I’m about to become one of those annoying people who are ridiculously evangelical about something that an awful lot of people already know. The story is told by the wife and four daughters of a fierce Baptist minister who takes his family and mission to the Belgium Congo in 1959. It’s beautifully-written and the characters are all drawn wonderfully well. Although it’s a work of fiction, the historical figures and events described within it are genuine. I found it utterly compelling. The painful backdrop to the story is the greed of the western world for the natural resources of an African country; the desperate political power struggles – again influenced, at that time, by the United States and others (shipments of weapons to opposition parties/violation of peace agreements etc). A simply brilliant book. One of the best books I’ve ever read… yes, THAT brilliant!    
Absent In The Spring (Mary Westmacott): Agatha Christie wrote six novels under the pseudonym Mary Westacott (not many people know this!)… and this, first published in 1944, was one of them. It tells the story of a woman, returning from a visit to her daughter in Iraq, finding herself unexpectedly alone and stranded in an isolated rest house by flooding of the railway tracks. During this unexpected period of solitude, the woman finds herself reflecting on her life, her relationships and her attitudes (if I described her as self-centred, shallow, selfish and smug, you’d probably get a reasonable picture of the lady!). It felt it was a little like reading Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” – as the main character “discovered” some “home truths” about herself. As a result, would she re-assess her life and vow to change? I couldn’t possibly say! Although not really “my kind of book”, I found it a very readable novel – not altogether surprising perhaps, given Christie’s experience in writing popular literature.
The Essential Henry Longhurst (edited by Chris Plumridge): I’ve had this book for some 20 years (first published in 1988) and thought it was about time I re-read it. It comprises over 130 of Longhurst’s articles written for ‘Golf Illustrated’ during the late-1950s and 1960s. I’d been a long-time admirer of Longhurst as a television golf commentator and you can certainly “hear” his voice as you read his writings. Inevitably, his pieces are all very much “of their time” and written before televised golf, easy plane travel, huge sporting prize money and the internet were commonplace. He was public school (and Cambridge) educated, middle class, a Conservative MP (1943-45), a “gentleman”… and also comes over as a bit of a snob too (with much talk of “The Empire” and patronising references to “the ladies”! Nevertheless, still fascinating and entertaining (if somewhat repetitive) – especially when it comes to such matters as the cost of golf clubs, prize money and the difficulties of keeping up with scores in the early days of televised golf.
Yes Minister: The Diaries Of A Cabinet Minister, Volume 3 (edited by Jonathan Lynn+Antony Jay): I’ve had this book for probably 25 years (it was first published in 1983) and I’ve read it perhaps half a dozen times (but the last time was a fair few years ago). It NEVER fails to make me laugh out loud! Essentially, the “diaries” are re-written versions of the old television programme scripts. One thing that I’d failed to spot until now, was the “editors’ note” (by scriptwriters Lynn+Jay) at the start of the book – which is supposedly written from “Hacker College, Oxford” (Jim Hacker is the book’s Minister for the Department of Administrative Affairs) in September 2019 – no doubt in the light of Hacker’s sparkling contribution to British politics! If you’ve never read any of the diaries (or seen the television programmes – including “Yes, Prime Minister”), then you REALLY must – they make a wonderful backdrop to the exploits of our own current batch of parliamentary high-fliers! Simply brilliant.
Paradise Jazz (Kat Pomfret): Published in 2005. It’s a novel about family, history and identity… as well as jazz, food and life! It attempts to unravel the complexities of family history (separating truth from lies and searching for what’s missing or lost). Pomfret is a very talented, almost poetic, writer; her characters are believable and frequently very amusing. This book surprised me… it’s rather lovely.