Saturday, December 31, 2016

new year reflections...

Another year’s reflections (as always - a reminder to ME!):
For me, the most depressing words of 2016 are “Brexit” and “Trump” (I know there are lots of other words/phrases I could add to these – such as refugees, climate change, Syria/Aleppo, Tory government, Labour Party, the media, the haves-and-the-have-nots and austerity, to name just a few!). If you check out my facebook page or this blog from time to time, you will no doubt already know this! I’m afraid my faith in democracy has largely disappeared. The EU Referendum (which should never have happened in the first place) was a shambolic, disastrous farce - with outrageous claims and lies from both sides… and something that can’t be reversed in the short- or long-term (our children and their children have to bear the brunt of its consequences). It seems that, as a society, we’ve become a hateful, vindictive, racist, selfish bunch… and it saddens me beyond measure. Trump being elected US President simply underlined our very worst fears. SURELY, it couldn’t happen? But, ridiculously and (probably) catastrophically, it HAS.

Another depressing aspect of 2016 has been the death of so many high-profile/famous individuals, including: Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, George Martin, Terry Wogan, Carla Lane, Jo Cox, Fidel Castro, Johan Cruyff, John Glenn, AA Gill, Rick Parfitt, George Michael… to name just a VERY few.

Anyway, on the more positive things:
My top TWELVE, in some sort of order!! (I’d intended to limit it to just FIVE, but found it impossible – it’s been a bumper year!): The Year Of Living Danishly (Helen Russell); The Iceberg (Marion Coutts); Coffin Road (Peter May); Oxford (Jan/James Morris); Postcapitalism (Paul Mason); A Year Of Marvellous Ways (Sarah Winman); Quiet (Susan Cain); Rose (Georgina Hounsome+Alexandra Higlett); The Old Ways (Robert Macfarlane); Somewhere Towards The End (Diana Athill); Sheila (Robert Wainwright) and The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Richard Flanagan).


My top nine (in vague order… Mark Kermode and I just have to agree to disagree)… again, can’t get it down to 5:
Spotlight; I, Daniel Blake; Rams; Ethel and Ernest; Captain Fantastic; High-Rise; Bone Tomahawk, Trumbo and The Eagle Huntress.

(broken down into various categories):
We’ve been absolute rubbish at going to the theatre this year!
Jane Eyre (National Theatre)(brilliant!); The Snow Queen (Bristol Old Vic) and You Can Never Tell (Shaw’s Corner).
Highlights: Lisa Hannigan; Grayson Perry (if you can call his performance a “concert”!?); Tom Robinson; Three Cane Whale; Paul Bradley, London Klezmer Quartet and Nessi Gomes.

Not as many as I’d have liked (but I might have forgotten one or two?): Alexander Calder “Performing Sculpture” (Tate Modern); The British Museum generally (particularly enjoyed revisiting The Parthenon Sculptures plus Assyrian+Egyptian sculptures); Daphne Wright “Emotional Archeology” (Arnolfini); Fabric of India (V+A); and, of course, the Annual Open Exhibition (RWA).

I actually watched a little more “live” sport this year, including: Cricket at Taunton (three days, I think) and at Edgbaston; Football at Villa Park (Villa lost to Liverpool 0-6!) and at Ashton Gate (Villa lost to Bristol City 1-3!); Rugby at Ashton Gate (Bristol Rugby lost to Northampton I0-32!).
Once again, we’ve been blessed to be able to meet up with many of our lovely “special” friends (they know who they are!) on a pretty frequent basis during the course of the year… always special occasions… and have also really enjoyed making new friendships. Other highlights included Julia+Joe’s wedding in Tuscany and Kerry+Allan’s wedding in Stoke Poges – with brilliant friends; getting together with the wonderful Franziska Opp (from Germany/Iona), Joy Banks (from Canada) and re-connecting with Nick+Christine in Luton.

Another really enjoyable, busy year, including:
1. I’ve still very much enjoyed continuing to post a drawing or photograph every day as part of my “One Day Like This” blog (now approaching 800 drawings and 800 photographs since I started in September 2012). I also produced another Blurb book of drawings (and, this time, photographs) entitled “Four Years Like This” to mark four years of blogging.

2. I joined a brilliant Drawing Group – organised by a wonderful lady (and talented artist!), Charlotte Pain, with the support of the Churches Conservation Trust. We meet for two hours most Tuesdays (and also occasionally go “on tour” to draw other churches on the CCT’s list.

The Group also held its first exhibition “Within The Wall” at St John-on-the-Wall church, Bristol.
3. We had another successful Arts Trail at number 40 (I think this was our 13th consecutive year)… and attracted some 700 people into our basement over the Arts Trail weekend!

4. I produced a large, coloured drawing (well, three drawings – one for each of our front windows) as part of the very successful Window Wanderland last March.
5. I provided some photographs for an exhibition in Saint Stephen’s church in Bristol as part of a Friendly Stage/B.Friend fund-raising evening.
6. I produced a 2017 Calendar of Bristol drawings (you might recall that I undertook the drawings a year ago!)… and sold all 50 copies by the beginning of November!!

Cafes, reading, drawing, photography, walking, cycling (rather less this year), living near the sea (well, sort of…) and, of course, looking after our Bristol grandchildren remain very important aspects of my life (although, now that they’re all at school, our time with them is sadly a little reduced these days… but school-runs and child-sitting partly make up for it!).

Feel SO lucky to have the family we have… and great that we all “get on” so well and are able to see each other regularly (even if we don’t see the Chorley/Lancashire contingent as often as we’d like).
It’s good that Gaol Ferry Steps FINALLY opened this year, just down the road. As a result, I spend a fair amount of my cafĂ© time at the wonderful Mokoko! Wild Beer is also amongst the units there – great designer beers and lovely food!!
I think I need to do some brainstorming as far as “future projects” are concerned. It’s possible that I might be involved in art project in Leeds with my great mate Si Smith and a few other family members perhaps. I’m also vaguely considering doing another calendar – this time based on Birmingham (my ‘home town’)… or maybe even Oxford? I’ll obviously continue to explore Bristol (perhaps drawings and/or photographs from around Temple Meads?) but also maybe old boats at Sharpness? Cardiff? Clevedon? Bath? Forest of Dean? Lyme Regis?  Perhaps also more train excursions exploring places within easy reach of Bristol? Coastal walks? Canal-side walk to Bath? We’ll see (I think I said the same thing last year!)…

We’ve tightened our belts a little this year, but have been delighted to enjoy an excellent few days in St Ives (celebrating Ruth’s 40th birthday!) and a week in beautiful Cortona, Italy (celebrating Joe+Julia’s marriage).

I think I’ve only played one game of golf this year (or was it two?).
We continue to be part of the Community of Saint Stephens (St Stephens Street in the heart of the city) and it really does now feel like our “spiritual home”. We’ve made some really good friends with the very special people there and, although my own faith-life continues on its rather meandering course, it all feels pretty good, hopeful stuff…

The successful hip replacement (April 2014) continues to REALLY make a huge difference… walking and cycling are no problem at all. Brilliant. The other nagging health issue I commented on this time last year was persistent bursitis in my right arm. It lasted for perhaps 9 months and was quite debilitating, but I’m pleased to report that this has now largely cleared.
After a nagging flu virus, followed by a persistent cough, earlier in the year, I was aware that I was becoming a little short of breath at times (nothing dramatic, I hasten to add!). Following various tests, it turned out that I had an irregular heartbeat (“Atrial fibrillation”) and have been duly prescribed blood thinning tablets. I continue to attend various hospital appointments to monitor all sorts of stuff – which is fine by me as it feels a bit like an “oldies MOT”!
I actually feel in very good health and probably walk 3-4 miles virtually every day. If only my teeth+gums, cut/inflamed right shin (which is taking an absolute age to heal) and perhaps hearing(?) would sort themselves out, I’d be a PERFECT, healthy specimen! 
1. Being a Trustee at the wonderful Windmill Hill City Farm continues to be good fun (it’s an amazing place with some brilliant people working/volunteering there). A fair amount of hard work and responsibility, but it all feels very worthwhile.
2. After several years of helping, I’m giving the local Arts Trail steering group a ‘break’ for another year (at least!) – hopefully, they’ll find enough willing hands to allow it go ahead!
But hey, for us as a family, it’s been another pretty good year… and we continue to count our blessings.

Photo: family on Leigh Woods Christmas Eve walk.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

november-december 2016 books

The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien): First published in 1960 (O’Brien’s first published novel), this is a story, narrated in the first person, of Caithleen – who at the beginning is a 14 year-old girl living in an Irish village and at the end is an 18 year-old in Dublin. Together with her childhood friend Baba, they leave the safety of their convent school in search of life and love in the big city, they struggle to maintain their somewhat tumultuous relationship. It’s about girls becoming women, about innocence… and, ultimately, about them finding their own separate ways. It’s funny and charming, but I also found it a sad and rather dark book… about the innocence of youth.
Jeeves In The Offing (PG Wodehouse): Yes, I know, all very predictable… farcical storyline; wonderfully eloquent (in a 1920’s sort of way); the idle rich; inevitable outcome; rather funny. You get the general idea. But, actually, at this time of constant grim news (Trump, Brexit et al), the book comes as a very refreshing, uplifting change.
Ways Of Life (Andrew Motion): I like Motion’s writing. This book, published in 2008, represents a selection of his non-fiction writing over the past 30 years – specifically, articles about places, painters and poets… as well as some striking personal pieces. I particularly enjoyed Motion’s description of places (‘Homecoming’ and ‘Sailing to Italy’ for example) and, although I occasionally struggled with his essays on some poets or painters I was unfamiliar with, found this book to be a beautiful insight into the lives of an abundance of creative people - enriched by Motion’s wise, measured, rewarding words.
The Voice Of The Violin (Andrea Camilleri): This is an Inspector Montalbano Mystery (I’ve never read one before). Set in Sicily, Montalbano is one of those police officers who have a natural disdain for their so-called superiors. It’s an intriguing (I seem to find most crime novels quite clever – perhaps it’s my limited intellect/expectations?) story of corruption, false clues and vendettas… mixed with delicious meals and much humour (very funny at times). Ideal ‘comfort food’ for the Christmas holiday period!
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (Max Porter): This is a rather beautiful, heartrending, surprising little book. It’s part-poetry, part-drama and part-essay on grief. The book’s flysheet summarises it thus: “two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness… In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This sentimental bird is drawn to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him”. I’ve actually read Hughes’s book “Crow” (poems/mythical narrative/epic folk tale he wrote following the suicide of his wife Sylvia Platt – I didn’t understand/appreciate huge chunks of it, but it certainly left an impression). The format (written featuring a series of contributions from ‘Crow’, ‘Dad’ and ‘Boys’) reminded me of Claire Williamson’s Soulwater Pool”, which I read earlier in the year. Hugely inventive, very unusual and hauntingly powerful. Excellent.  
Footnote: Once again, I seem to have read an awful lot of books this year (my blog tells me it’s 70 – it was apparently 69 in 2015)… I think they call it “retirement”!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

the eagle huntress…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon (who needs to shop for Christmas presents anyway?) to see Otto Bell’s extraordinary documentary film “The Eagle Huntress”. It features a 13 year-old nomadic Mongolian girl, who causes something of a stir in her tribe by challenging the traditionally male role of Eagle Hunter (which had been passed on within families from father to son for centuries).
So, with the support of her father and grandfather, this girl (named Aisholpan) sets out to compete in the all-male Golden Eagle Festival. Indeed, Aisholpan is the true star of this film – with her round, red face and her absolutely captivating smile and manner.
I loved this film.
Ok, perhaps to our western eyes, it’s not exactly politically correct (Aisholpan has to remove a baby golden eagle from is its nest and, once trained, to use it to hunt) but, I can assure you, it’s wonderfully fascinating to watch.
The scenery is stunning. The colours of the clothes are vibrant. There’s something absolutely entrancing about watching Aisholpan gallop effortlessly on horseback across one of the world’s true wildernesses… and, of course, there’s the beauty of watching majestic golden eagles in flight!
Joyful and uplifting.
Or, as Aisholpan might call to her eagle…
H U U K A A !!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

book spreadsheet (yes, I know!)…

We have LOTS of books scattered around our house.
Although I have a foolproof system which enables me to lay my hands on specific books amazingly quickly (well, within a couple of days anyway!), Moira has frequently been somewhat critical of my cunning plan.
As a result, we decided to produce a spreadsheet of books (yes, I know!)… which provides a list of titles, authors, shelf locations and other bits of mundane trivia.
This WAS going to be a project for the New Year but, predictably, I couldn’t resist the challenge and the spreadsheet is now complete!
Well, it turns out that we currently have 2,001 books on our shelves!
For some reason, this number feels strangely significant… but I’m at a loss to come up with any justification. Perhaps one of the books takes the form of a mysterious black monolith (Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, A Space Odyssey refers)?
Who knows?

Not surprisingly (for us, at least), we have quite a few duplicate books.
Crime features strongly (I blame Moira!): for instance, we have 35 books by Agatha Christie and 18 by Margery Allingham.
Somewhat predictably, we have a large number of Bibles (14, in fact!).
Amongst our collection, there are quite a few old paperbacks of the 1930s/40s (too many to bother to list in total), including Margot Asquith’s Autobiography, dated 1936; Jack London’s ‘The Mutiny of the Elsinore’, dated 1946; Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan’, dated 1946; HG Wells’ ‘A Short History of the World’ and ‘The History of Mr Polly’, both 1946.
As far as hardback books are concerned, there a number of fascinating volumes, including: James Hilton’s ‘Good-Bye Mr Chipps’, dated 1934; Punch Magazine, dated July-December 1923; Kay Fisker’s ‘Modern Danish Architecture’, dated 1927; Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, dated 1920; Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, dated 1911; three volumes of GAT Middleton’s ‘Modern Building’, dated 1906; Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Past and Present’, dated 1872; three (illustrated) volumes of ‘The Works of William Shakespeare’ dating back to 1843; and de Rouillon’s ‘The Tourist’s French Companion’, dated 1829.
Please don’t feel shy about making contact and offering us SUBSTANTIAL sums of money for any of the above!
The challenge, of course, will be a) keeping the spreadsheet up to date; b) how diligently we remove duplicate books (offer them to friends/charity shops); c) agreeing particular locations for individual authors (rather than having them spread around the house… with a few exceptions – see item d) and, finally (and crucially), d) whether I’m able to retain my lovely arrangement of colour-coded spines in the living room (don’t even go there!)… 
PS: the beautiful lino print heads in the photograph are by my great friend (and brilliant artist, of course!) Si Smith. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

the snow queen…

Moira and I went along to the Bristol Old Vic last night to Lee Lyford’s version of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” (duly re-written/adapted by Vivienne Franzmann).
Somewhat ridiculously, this was the first time we’d seen a performance at the Old Vic in this, its 250th year!
It proved to be a good night out. The highlight was undoubtedly the evil, sinister Snow Queen herself – towering over the audience and coming to life, thanks to the brilliance of Marc Parrett’s puppetry design. Will Duke’s video projections were also impressive - as were the cast in their multi-tasking/multi-character roles.
But, strangely, I was left feeling that the production lacked a true sense theatrical magic.
The music was fine, but unexceptional (but perhaps I’ve just been completely spoiled by hearing/seeing Benji Bower+Co over recent years!); the acting was good but, sometimes, I felt that the ‘characterisation’ made some of what was being said somewhat incoherent or muddled; some of the set design was absolutely excellent, but (to my mind) some scenes/props were unnecessary and/or unconvincing.
I think my main criticism is that the story had too many themes and twists and, at times (quite frequently in my view), lost its way. Vivienne Franzmann’s adaptation maintained the major plot points - and many of the characters of the original tale - and combined them with new characters and several modern twists. Frankly, it left me feeling that she’d over-complicated things… and that someone needed to edit the script quite severely!
Hey, but what do I know!?
Moira was also slightly disappointed by the production, judging by the reaction of the rest of the audience, most people seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the show. Why don’t you see it for yourself and make up your own mind (it runs until 15 January)?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

the pass…

I went to the Watershed last night to see Ben A Williams’s “The Pass” – about an ambitious footballer leading a life of denial. Here’s a very rough synopsis: it tells the story of three nights over 10 years in the life of a Premier League footballer, Jason (quite brilliantly played by Russell Tovey); it’s about fame, celebrity, talent, arrogance and aspiration (I WAS going to write ‘goals’!!)… but it’s also about lies, fortune, excess, image, selfishness, desire (in both senses of the word) and repressed sexuality – within the hyper-masculine and very public world of professional football.
The other principal character is Ade (again, wonderfully played by Arinze Kene) – who, in the first of the ‘three nights’, is sharing a hotel room in with Jason before an important European match… including, out of the blue, sharing a kiss (the film title thus providing a clever double-meaning to ‘making a pass’ in a sexual and footballing sense). The dialogue and acting in this scene are quite brilliant – a combination of pre-match nerves, locker-room banter and teenage nonsense.
By the last of the ‘three nights’, ten years on, Jason is coming to the end of his career, nursing an injury, living off his somewhat fading reputation as a player and seeking to secure one final lucrative deal to end his career (possibly in a new football league in India?). You get the general idea…
It’s a very impressive, tough, powerful film which deals with the stereo-typical ‘more-money-than-sense’ football star image, but also about ego, relationships… and loneliness.
I found it utterly compelling… and yet (perhaps it’s just my unhealthy contempt for rich footballers?), it really wasn’t quite my cup of tea (or even coffee!).

Friday, December 02, 2016

london klezmer quartet…

Moira and I attended to a quite extraordinary evening of music last night at Saint Stephen’s. The London Klezmer Quartet is a group of four immensely-talented and dynamic musicians (featuring violin, clarinet, accordion and double bass), formed in 2009 by a group of klezmer specialists keen to explore the almost-lost wedding music tradition of Jewish eastern Europe. I went along anticipating good musicianship and an entertaining evening but, if I’m honest, little more than that really. I couldn’t recall ever having been to a concert of Jewish music before and my expectations were probably limited to images of “Fiddler on the Roof” (pathetic, I know)!
Well, how wrong I was!
What transpired was an evening of glorious, celebratory and soulful music of the Eastern European Jewish tradition – old and new traditional songs, exuberant, passionate and hugely-accomplished performances (and they were witty and funny too). They were a complete revelation.
I was particularly taken by the double bass player, Indra Buraczewska (out of Latvia/Australia!) – a wonderful musician and a natural ‘performer’… with an incredible, deep singing voice. Completely captivating.
A brilliant, exciting evening!
PS: They were supported by an unusual and, again, highly-talented “Chai For All” – ‘trumpet-led klezmer Balkan and Arabic tunes with kaval, clarinet, oud, guitar, derabukka and Yiddish song’. Pretty special in their own right!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

your name...

I went to the Watershed yesterday to see Makoto Shinkai’s much-acclaimed film “Your Name” (Japan’s highest-grossing film of the year). As you might know, I’ve been a great admirer of the Studio Ghibli animated films – and was hugely saddened when Hayao Miyazaki announced that he’d made his last full-length feature film. Well, now it seems that Shinkai has emerged as Miyazuki’s heir apparent.
This is a simply stunningly beautiful film – on all levels.
Visually, it is hugely ambitious, wonderfully-observed and brilliantly executed (even better than Studio Ghibli in my view!). As a story, it’s emotionally-charged (and funny!), thought-provoking and cleverly mixes contemporary and traditional elements.
It’s a complicated film about two teenagers who haven’t met, but who find their lives intertwined after the arrival of the first visible comet for a thousand years approaches Japan. I have to admit that there were parts that I didn’t fully understand or appreciate (I think I need to see it again!). Mitsuha lives in a rural area and longs to leave; meanwhile, Taki is at school in Tokyo (and he’s a part-time waiter). They begin to dream about each other, imagining that, somehow, they’ve exchanged bodies and are living in parallel lives. Their spirits appear to swap back and forth at random, facilitating the need for smartphone messages to keep each other abreast of their oddly intimate adventures. And this is all set against darker background of a multi-coloured, threatening sky which is about to fall on them.

I’ve just read Mark Kermode’s review of the film in The Observer (he gave it a 5 star review!). He concluded it thus: “Like the stories they tell, these moving pictures are a fusion of the ancient and modern. ‘Treasure the experience,’ Mitsuha’s grandmother tells her sagely. ‘Dreams fade away after you wake up.’ Not so this splendid movie, which will leave audiences in a heady reverie long after its mysterious light has faded from the screen”.
I would say ‘Amen’ to that! You need to see it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

november 2016 books…

Eric Ravilious: Memoir Of An Artist (Helen Binyon): I was given this rather lovely book (and the “High Street” book included below) by my very good ‘Drawing Group’/Saint Stephen’s friend David McLaughlin (we also both worked for Geoffrey Beard at The Oxford Architects Partnership in the mid-1970s!). I could generally recognise much of Ravilious’s work but, somewhat shamefully perhaps, didn’t know much more about him. This book, first published in 1983, is written by his friend (and fellow student at the Royal College of Art, from 1922 onwards). Ravilious, who tragically died in 1942 while on service as an Official War Artist, produced an extraordinary amount of work in his short career - including murals, watercolours, wood engravings, lithographs and pottery designs. Interestingly (for me, at least!), there was also a reference to Ravilious’s work for the Kynoch Press in Birmingham in 1932 (in connection with their prestigious annual “Note Book”)… my father was a compositor at the Kynoch Press some 40 years later, during the latter days of his printing career in the mid-1970s. The book is fascinating insight into the work of an outstanding artist… or, as its cover puts it: “a compelling account of a genius”. 
High Street (JM Richards and Eric Ravilious): First published in 1938 (and subsequently republished in 2012 by V+A Publishing), this book introduces the British high street – pairing Ravilious’s 24 illustrations with Richards’s text (I was very familiar with his “An Introduction to Modern Architecture”!). It was initially conceived and promoted as a children’s book, but soon gained a wider reputation with adult readers. The text is frequently hilarious – like this for the ‘Clerical Outfitter’: “A shop like this has one advantage over other shops: it can give any amount of credit as a clergyman can always be traced and so can never get away without paying”. It’s a wonderful, rather poignant, reminder of how things have changed in our local High Streets… and, needless to say, the illustrations are beautiful – albeit, “of their time”.
The Snow Geese (William Fiennes): I first read this book in 2003 and recently picked it up again (and realised how little of it I could remember!). Hence the re-read! At the age of 25, in the middle of his post-graduate studies, Fiennes was struck with a severe illness. During his long period of convalescence at his parents’ family home in the Midlands, he rediscovers an old neglected interest in ornithology, inspired by his father and readings of a favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose. He becomes fascinated by the bird and ultimately decides to follow the birds on their long migratory path from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Arctic. This lovely, beautifully-written, book tells of his journey, the people he met on the way and, of course, nature and the geese themselves. A very special, reflective and poetic book.
Oxford (James Morris/Jan Morris): We used to have a hardback ‘James Morris’ copy of this book (first published in 1965, as illustrated above), but must have lent it to someone (as you do!) and never had it returned. We subsequently replaced it with a revised paperback version in 1979 (published in 1978). As students in Oxford in the late 1960s/early 70s (spending more than a decade living there), it provided a wonderful backdrop to the city we came to love. I was ‘inspired’ to re-read the book following a recent television programme in which Michael Palin talked to Jan Morris about her life as a writer and journalist. It’s a truly magical book (I might be a little prejudiced, of course!) – crammed with fascinating insights and obscure facts. This is the third time I’ve read it (although I’ve referred to it on numerous occasions) and I’m so glad that I did. Oxford has no doubt changed dramatically over the past 40-50 years, but it’s still instantly recognisable through Morris’s perceptive, lyrical prose. It’s one of those books that people will still be reading in 50 or 100 years time and marvelling at its contents. In the light of June’s EU Referendum, the following extract is particularly poignant(!): “The University… vigorously supported British entry to the Common Market; and when in 1975 a national referendum was held to determine the issue once and for all, among the deciding factors may well have been the debate on the subject at the Oxford Union, addressed by passionate political leaders of both factions, televised nationally in a three-hour marathon programme, and ending with an overwhelming vote for Europeanness”. Ah, those were the days!! Yes, I might just have become over-nostalgic in my old age, but I can’t recall a book that has given me so much pleasure to read. A simply wonderful book.
The High Mountains Of Portugal (Yann Martel): This is our Book Group’s next book (I haven’t yet read Martel’s Man Booker prizewinning “The Life of Pi”!). It involves three inter-connected stories, set in Portugal over the course of the twentieth century – all have a common theme of grief and lost love (the men in each of the stories has suffered the death of a wife). I found all three stories somewhat haunting in character – at times intriguing and yet, ultimately, all of them irritating and frustrating. I found the first two tales tediously slow at times (in the first one, for instance, the author spends over 20 pages describing how our character learns to drive a car!) and any momentum that is established was ultimately unfulfilled. No doubt Martel felt he was being clever and mysterious but, each time, I was left with a sense of “damp squibs”! For me, the final part of the book was better in this respect (you realised that the three stories would be brought together in some way) but, again, I was left feeling disappointed and underwhelmed. I wanted to like this book but, sadly, I didn’t!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

general election 2017?

A couple of days ago, I wrote this as my facebook status:
Dear Labour Party: I think there's going to be a General Election VERY soon (especially after the High Court ruling on Article 50) and, if this is the case, as things stand (with you continuing to fail to provide an effective Opposition), it's going to be an utter disaster - probably guaranteeing a Tory government for the next 10 years at least. It could actually result in the demise of the Labour Party itself.
So, please get your act together very, VERY quickly... for the sake of the country.
Talking and negotiating with the LibDems, the SNP and the Green Party is probably your/our ONLY hope... but, hey, I know you won't be listening!

It triggered some interesting and thought-provoking responses.

The fact of the matter is that current opinion polls (30 October, for what it’s worth) indicate that the Tories have a 16% lead over Labour (Tories 43%, Labour 27%, LibDems 8%, UKIP 12%, Others 10%). This compares with an apparent(!) Labour lead of 1% on the eve of the May 2015 General Election (Tories 34%, Labour 35%, LibDems 9%, UKIP 11%, Others 11%).
Added to this is the potential for many of the Labour Party’s present MPs to be de-selected by its local membership at the next election. Would this result in more potential voters turning to the Labour Party or giving up altogether? I think most people would simply shake their heads and question if a Party that couldn’t sort itself out was actually capable of running the country. Perhaps I’m wrong.
One report I’ve seen this week has suggested that, based on current opinion polls, the Labour Party could be reduced to something like 160 seats in parliament (it current has 231) which would provide the Tories with a MASSIVE majority. On this basis, as I outlined on facebook, I genuinely fear that the Conservative Party would be in power for at least another ten years. The implications for the NHS, Mental Health, Education, Welfare, the Arts, the Rich and the Poor… and society in general are, for me, frankly TERRIFYING.
I genuinely feel that the majority of the population would share my concerns (albeit not as passionately perhaps?).

Sadly, our first-past-the-post election system provides no encouragement whatsoever. Effectively, this means that the outcome of a General Election hinges on the outcome in perhaps 100 “marginal” seats (however you gauge the term!). I would therefore maintain that there is very little prospect of Labour winning the next election (you might disagree – in which case, I admire your optimism!) based on the current electoral system. In my view, the ONLY way to prevent a Tory landslide at the next general Election is for the opposition parties to work together in order to try to maximise their chances (they might not win an election but, at worst, they might secure a far more effective Opposition).
In order for this happen, it will require Labour, LibDems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru to work together (in England and Wales) and to decide which party stands the best chance of winning each individual parliamentary seat (and to concentrate their limited resources/budget accordingly). Sadly (in terms of true democracy), this will mean that the Green Party, for instance, should only contest perhaps a total of say six seats; the LibDems say 75; Plaid Cymru say 20? In all the other constituencies (and, yes, that would include mine), this would mean the electorate making a straight decision between the Tories and Labour (with UKIP perhaps eating into more Tory votes than Labour!).
It’s far from ideal, but it might be the ONLY way the Labour Party (and the country!) can avoid utter disaster. It would also mean that the Labour Party would agree to incorporate LibDems/Greens/Plaid Cymru policies within its own manifesto (and include members from the other parties within its own Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet).
Such a move would require brave leadership amongst all the opposition parties… but the potentially devastating implications, if they don’t, don’t bear thinking about.
Sadly, I don’t think the Labour Party would contemplate such a policy under its present leadership (and we all know that there’s very chance of a new leader being elected before the next General Election!).
It might be time to move to Iceland… or Finland… or Denmark (if they’ll have us!)?


Thursday, November 03, 2016

grayson perry: typical man in a dress…

Went to see/hear Grayson Perry last night at Colston Hall.
He’s a pretty amazing bloke… definitely one of those people I’d have in my “dream team”. I don’t think I realised just how good he was before going to see his brilliant exhibition at The British Museum in 2011 (“Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”?). Since then, I’ve been captivated by his art, his various excellent television series for Channel 4 television (“All Man”, “Who Are You?” and “In the Best Possible Taste”) and his stunningly good Reith Lectures in 2013 (which you still listen to via BBC iPlayer).

Grayson Perry has the happy knack of being able to communicate with anyone. I suppose you could even describe his manner as “matey” (which, on the face of it, seems a somewhat strange description for a cross-dressing potter!). He’s a natural communicator (and performer). He’s articulate, perceptive, funny, instinctive and intelligent. He’s able to challenge people without appearing to judge them. He’s utterly compelling. Last night, he mainly focussed on the subject of “masculinity”. The Colston Hall blurb described him as a “lecturer and bestselling author with traditional masculine traits like a desire to always be right and to overtake all other cyclists when going up big hills”.
The theatre was full. He’s clearly a very popular, well-loved bloke!
He talked on stage for an hour against a backdrop of visual images to illustrate his words (strutting his stuff in a couple of flamboyant and colourful dresses and outrageous shoes!). For the second half of the show, he’d encouraged the audience to tweet on the subject of masculinity (during the interval) and spent some time talking about these… before a Q+A sequence, followed by a final summing up of what he believes masculinity should (and shouldn’t) be about.
Somewhat bizarrely, during the course of the evening, I found myself at times wishing that Grayson Perry was our Prime Minster. Maybe I could envisage Perry, with his high-heeled, sparkly blue wedges, waging war (rather more effectively than the current Opposition) with a well-shod Theresa May across the Dispatch Box?!
If only…  
It was a rather wonderful, uplifting, entertaining evening.
At a time when everything in the world at present seems bleak and depressing, Grayson Perry brought a little bit of hope and inspiration!
He’s become a national treasure. How did THAT happen!?
Photo: Grayson Perry on stage last night (we were in row D!)…

Monday, October 31, 2016

ethel and ernest…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Roger Mainwood’s film “Ethel and Ernest” – based on Raymond Briggs’ autobiographical graphic novel about his parents Ethel and Ernest.
I’m a huge fan of Raymond Briggs. I used to love reading  “Father Christmas Goes On Holiday” to our daughters (and subsequently to our grandchildren) and, now, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without me inflicting “The Snowman” and “Father Christmas” DVDs on to grandchildren – whether they want to see them or not!
I also find it quite amusing that Briggs himself now appears to despise Christmas… “I don’t like the Christmas thing at all. It’s so full of anxiety – have I got enough stuff? Where am I going to go? What should I give for presents?”…
Well, I found this animated film rather lovely (Brenda Blethyn’s and Jim Broadbent’s voices are just perfect). Predictably charming and ordinary… and very much capturing Briggs’ style.
It re-tells half-remembered family stories – some sad, some very funny; it reminds those of us of a certain age about how things were and about how much things have changed for our children… and their children.
In many ways, it was like watching a picture about my own parents’ life and marriage… albeit set some 15 years earlier (E+E met in the late-1920s, R+M met in the mid-1940s):
·         Ethel+Ernest were, like my parents Ron+Mary, from a working class background.
·         Ethel and Mary had a somewhat similar, simplistic, attitude to life – the family was everything and what was happening in the world beyond the family never seemed to be important to them (BUT they were both critical of the length of their son’s hair!).
·         Ernest was a milkman (with socialist tendencies!) and a bit of dreamer who took a keen interest in what was happening in the world via newspapers and the radio (and later TV). Despite his working class roots, Ron always voted Conservative; he was a compositor (printer) and was always keen to educate himself (he would have LOVED the internet!). After being made redundant fairly late in his working life, he ended up driving a bread delivery van – so, again, a bit like Ernest.
·        Raymond Briggs himself is 15 years older than me… was a grammar school boy and then went to Art School (The Slade) – much to his parents’ bewilderment; I went to grammar school (and my parents were alarmed when I was put into the fast ‘Remove’ stream and somewhat sceptical about me going to study architecture at university - the first in our family to do so… and why on earth couldn’t I stay in Birmingham to study for goodness sake?!).
·         Like Ethel+Ernest, Ron+Mary (eventually) owned a Triumph Herald… and like me, Raymond owned a Mini van!
·         Ethel+Ernest had a very good marriage and enjoyed a good life. The same could be said for my parents… and I’m so grateful that they did.
“Ethel and Ernest” is a predictably nostalgic film – at times, moving, powerful and funny. The way Ernest stared at the sunset from his back garden or at the view across miles of open landscape with Raymond, is somewhat reminiscent of Ron’s (and Mary’s) appreciation of the world’s beauty.
It’s a wonderfully evocative film and, for me, what I REALLY liked was its quiet, proud ‘ordinariness’ and the way it honours ordinary lives.

Friday, October 21, 2016

I, Daniel Blake...

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Ken Loach’s acclaimed film “I, Daniel Blake”. It’s the story of the friendship between an out-of-work, 59 year-old carpenter (Daniel Blake) and young single mother… who are both forced to navigate the challenges of the welfare system in Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Blake (brilliantly played by Dave Johns) is recovering from a heart attack, but not yet allowed (by his doctor and consultant) to return to work. As a result, he has to apply for Employment and Support Allowance… but, in its wisdom, the government has decreed that his benefits will be taken away unless he looks for work (but he can’t work because his doctors have said he can’t… etc etc). This is all made worse by the fact that all the required forms have to be completed online (and Daniel hasn’t a clue about computers).
You get the picture.
Meanwhile, Daniel befriends Katie (again, brilliantly played by Hayley Squires) at the local Jobcentre… she’s being messed around by the “system” (which has included her being relocated with her two children from a London homeless shelter) and he endeavours to intervene (unsuccessfully, of course).
They develop an unlikely, but very supportive, mutual alliance… but they struggle to avoid being crushed by the bureaucracy.
It’s a massively powerful, beautiful, sad, emotional (and, sometimes, even funny) film.
Yes, it’s Ken Loach (what would you expect?).
Yes, it’s ‘only’ a film.
But, sadly, it IS based on reality… people who genuinely struggle to provide for their families – many just managing thanks largely to foodbanks… and some who just don’t manage; people who struggle with farcical bureaucracy and with political ideologies. As Loach has said: “Few people are aware of what’s going on, and the scale of it, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, many of them feeling ashamed”.
Honest, hard-working, humble, good people.
It’s a film that will shock and sadden you.
It‘s a film about humiliation, degradation and despair.
And yet, it’s also a film about hope and goodness.
It’s a film that will probably make you cry and, if it’s anything like our experience today, it’s a film that the audience will applaud at the end (how many times does that happen?).
You definitely need to see this film… and so should all our politicians who deal with welfare and housing issues (Iain Duncan Smith has an awful lot to answer for)…
In fact, EVERYONE should see this brilliant film.

nessi gomes...

Last night was the second concert in a week for me (well, the third if you count the free lunchtime concert on Monday!)… so, not quite a ‘normal’ week for me as far as music is concerned.
I first came to hear about yesterday’s concert at Saint Stephen’s church through a friend (who, like me, also happens to be a member of this church’s rather special community). I knew nothing about Nessi Gomes – except that she was on a tour to launch her new album (released on 14 October), that she was a British-Portuguese singer-songwriter, that she was voted Winner of Best Unsigned Female Singer 2016… and that tickets cost just £7!
So, hopes for a good evening… but with limited expectations perhaps?
The evening started well with support singer/guitarist Sennen Timcke. Gomes followed him immediately on stage (just her, no interval)… she spoke a few words… which I couldn’t quite hear (it wasn’t just me, by the way)… the phrase “limited expectations” went through my head!
But then she started to play her guitar… and you just knew “it was going to be alright”!
I’m pretty useless at describing these things but, for me, it conjured up thoughts of Leonard Cohen’s guitar. Her voice turned out to be quite stunning too… dark, powerful, haunting, mournful. Her songs were melancholic, reflective and very beautiful. I’ve been trying to think who she reminds me of… but can’t really put my finger on anyone in particular (which probably reflects my lack of knowledge in these areas!)… perhaps Kate Bush on occasions? Joanna Newsom maybe? 
Anyway, another really excellent evening (lucky me). Yes, Nessi Gomes is a bit special... and you should definitely get to see/hear her if you possibly can.
Photo: Nessi Gomes, from last night’s concert.
PS: check out the website to hear some of her music.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

october 2016 books...

More book stuff:
5 Days In May (Andrew Adonis): An absolutely fascinating book (published in 2013) about the UK 2010 general election and coalition negotiations – as seen from the perspective of a Labour insider (and based on his notes of the time). It frequently felt like an episode from “West Wing”! Fascinating to read the contrasting comments of some Labour MPs at the time about the prospect of a Lab-Lib coalition: “If we don’t seize it (the opportunity of a coalition), the Tories could lock us out of power for a generation”… and ”We lost the election. By getting out now, we can regroup and we will back soon. This lot (the prospect of a Con-Lib coalition) won’t last five years, no chance…”. Inevitably, the book contains a number of interesting insights/reminders, such as Nick Clegg declaring (the day after the election) that he felt the chance to form a government should go to the largest party (when his Party’s instincts would surely have been to join with Labour?)… and the unpopularity of Gordon Brown and his apparent lack of team-playing skills (certainly compared with David Cameron’s gift of the gab and his ability to schmooze!). What I also found quite surprising (perhaps I should have known?) were the political instincts and backgrounds of Clegg and David Laws (key member of the Lib Dem negotiating team): Clegg has a privileged Home Counties, public school-educated background in the same mould as Cameron+Osborne; he worked with Tory Leon Brittan in Brussels (one Lib Dem MEP reckoned: “if the Conservative Party had been how it used to be under Edward Heath, Nick would be a Tory, albeit a natural liberal, pro-Europe Tory like Chris Patten and Ken Clarke”). Laws is from a similar background. Adonis sums up the key issue thus: “Why did Clegg turn Right? Because, on the big economic questions, he is on the Right, not the Left; and so too is David Laws, his chief strategist”. Interesting also is Adonis’s assertion that,  ultimately, the Lib Dems allowed themselves to be steam-rollered by the Tories. I’ll endeavour to read ‘alternative’ accounts of this time in due course (eg. Clegg’s book “Politics: Between the Extremes” and Laws’s book “22 Days in May”).   
Lazy Thoughts Of A Lazy Girl (Jenny Wren): This is a short book of comic essays (Jenny Wren is a pseudonym), first published over a hundred years ago in 1891 (and republished by Hesperus in 2010) “offering a woman’s take on life’s preoccupations”… as the jacket of my copy of the book aptly describes it. It really is rather wonderful – imagine it being written by a female Jerome K Jerome and you’ve got it! Essay subjects include love, politics, afternoon tea, children+dogs and watering places! A lovely ‘find’ in Bristol’s “The Last Bookshop” for £2-50.
The Iceberg (Marion Coutts): Another bargain from “The Last Bookshop”. This remarkable, extraordinary book (published in 2014) is an account of Tom Lubbock’s three year battle with a brain tumour – located in the area controlling speech and language (he died in 2010, aged 53). It’s written by his wife (Coutts is a lecturer in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London). Lubbock was an artist, illustrator and chief art critic of The Independent. When Lubbock’s illness was first diagnosed in 2008, their son was 18 months old. I found the book completely compelling… and powerful, poignant, honest, blunt, sensitive, funny, enlightening and defiant. It’s beautifully written – it has a quiet eloquence, together with a poetic elegance. Her sentences are quite short, but to the point. The book charts the deterioration of Tom’s speech (somewhat ironically coinciding, of course, with their son’s developing language skills), but it also narrates how the three of them tried to cope with Tom’s inevitable death. It’s a wonderful book – probably my book of the year thus far (ie. of those I’ve read this year). I read it within two days, but I think it will live with me for a long, long time.
The Girl On The Train (Paula Hawkins): No, I haven’t seen the film (but, from what I hear, it’s a big disappointment compared to the book)! Hawkins’s book is a psychological thriller told through the eyes of three women. One of them, Rachel (who happens to be an alcoholic) catches the same commuter train every morning; she knows the journey by heart – including the fact the train will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. But, one day, she sees something that distresses her… and that’s when things get a bit dramatic! I certainly found the book compulsive reading – full of interesting, flawed characters and a clever storyline. If I have a criticism, I thought the ending was a little weak and somewhat tame compared with the rest of the novel - despite its various twists and turns. Nevertheless, a very good book – which I simply couldn’t put down.
Tarantula (Bob Dylan): I bought this Dylan short book a few months ago (his only fictional book incidentally, written in 1965/66 but first published in 1971). I have to admit that, at that time, I read the first few pages and gave up… it felt as if he’d written it when out of his head on drugs (or maybe I’d just drunk too much red wine?). Anyway, following his recent Nobel Prize for Literature (which I completely endorse), I thought I’d give it another try… Well, as much as I love Dylan’s music, I’m afraid this “experimental prose poetry collection” (as I’ve seen it described) wasn’t for me and I haven’t changed my initial assessment. Actually, I DID enjoy some of the ‘letters’… and his verbal playfulness (at times, he’s very clever!). The following is just a very brief sample, taken completely at random, to give you a flavour: “juicy roses to coughing hands assembling k pluck national anthems! all hail! the football field ablaze with doves k alleyways where hitchhikers wandering k setting fire to their pockets resounding with the nuns k tramps k discarding the weedy Syrians, surfs of half-reason, the jack k jills k wax Michael from the church acre, who cry in their prime k gag of their twins…”. Largely unintelligible to me.