Monday, March 28, 2016

iona (the film)...

Moira and I, along with friends Gareth, Alan, Eilidh and Ed went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Scott Graham’s film “Iona”. The storyline is about a woman called Iona (played by Ruth Negga) who, after a brutal crime, has sought refuge with her teenage son, Bull (played by Ben Gallacher), on the island of her birth that's also her namesake.
As you might imagine, having visited the island a number of times and having spent two months there as a volunteer with the Iona Community in 2012, this was obviously a must-see film for me… and so I spent a good deal of the film thinking to myself “yes, I know that place very well… and just down there lives so-and-so” and remembering the weekly ceilidh in the village hall (where we were NOT allowed any alcohol, incidentally!).   
Another plus-point was that the film also featured the excellent Douglas Henshall (who played Jimmy Perez in the “Shetland” TV series) as a widower crofter.
Graham makes excellent use of the Hebridean landscapes (even though the weather wasn’t as good as my time on the island in 2012!) and pays close attention to the part religion plays in the island's life (but perhaps a little too fleetingly to my mind?). He also deals sensitively with the courtship between Bull and a beautiful young girl (played by Sorcha Groundsell) who can't walk.
The film moves at a very slow pace and dialogue is relatively sparse… which seems only to accentuate the unspoken mystery of past events. The more we learn about the characters, the less mysterious they become. The plot is only revealed very slowly…
It would be wrong for me to give away too much about the storyline(!)… but it essentially involves guilt between members of a small family and one is left with the feeling that, within a tiny island community, “the truth will out, so don’t try to hide it”.
I’ve just read through some reviews of the film and some of them (particularly the American ones?) don’t seem to have much knowledge or comprehension of what it’s like to live on a tiny Scottish island such as this.
I enjoyed the film very much – although perhaps I’m slightly biased!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

more on academy schools...

You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t pretend to know the finer points of property law!
However, I do understand that, before the general election, councils in England held the title deeds to schools and land valued at over £2.5 billion.
Sadly, as far as I can tell, the government’s proposals for Academy Schools will have depressing and far-reaching (and probably irreversible) implications for education:
1. When a school becomes an academy, the title deeds of the school and the land are transferred to a private company

2. The government borrows £25,000 to pay the legal fees for the private companies to ensure the title deeds are transferred from the council (ie. us, the taxpayers who paid to build the schools) to these private companies.
3. To date, it seems that £1billion of title deeds for academy schools have been transferred from councils/taxpayers to private companies (high of it for legal fees alone).
It seems that Academy Schools are not primarily about education - they are about asset-stripping (with the directors and shareholders of the sponsoring private companies being the beneficiaries). I’ve come across one example of this via the internet – where an academy sold part of its school grounds to Sainsbury’s for £21million… and where the company running the academy is listed as operating from the Cayman Islands (ie. double whammy: with taxpayers missing out twice).
Be afraid. Be very afraid!
PS: if you know different and I’ve misunderstood things, please do let me know!

Friday, March 25, 2016


Moira+I spent yesterday afternoon at the Watershed cinema, this time to see Ben Wheatley’s film “High Rise”, based on JG Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, and
with the excellent Tom Hiddleston playing the lead character (a well-off young surgeon who takes one of the bachelor flats near the top of a huge new apartment block).
One of my architectural heroes, Le Corbusier, saw the idea of the tower block as a way of providing spacious, peaceful, light-filled homes for the masses and, by building upwards, space would be liberated to surround such buildings with gardens and sports and cultural facilities. One of his most celebrated designs, built in 1952, was the 12-storey, "Unité d'Habitation" (originally called the “radiant city”) in Marseilles and included floors for shopping, social clubs, child care, a gym, a hotel, a rooftop garden and a swimming pool.
Well, this high-rise development, set in the 1970s (with Jeremy Irons playing the role of the block’s arrogant, somewhat demented, architect), is perhaps similar to Le Corbusier’s vision for living… but with added class conflict – a grand social experiment, a “crucible for change” (the lower classes live in cheaper flats on the lower floors, the middle classes on the middle floors and the upper classes “touching the sky”). Phrases like “know your place” and “don’t get ideas above your station” seemed particularly appropriate!
This building, however, also seems to be designed to isolate the occupants from the outside world, allowing for the possibility to create their own closed environment… but with the outdoor spaces appearing to consist mainly of car parking (with a very impressive array of vehicles from the1970s!).
It all disintegrates into the world reminiscent of an urban “Lord of the Flies”: life in the high-rise begins to degenerate quickly (perhaps a little too quickly in the film?), as power failures, refuse shoots blocked to capacity and petty annoyances among neighbours turn to violence. Scuffles are fought throughout the building, as floors try to claim lifts and hold them for their own. Groups gather to defend their rights to the swimming pools… and party-goers attack "enemy floors" to raid and vandalise them.
There were times when I felt the film was looking back on “class conflicts” of the present age (well, not class conflict exactly, more like the battle between society’s “haves” and “have-nots”)… and perhaps it does echo something of today’s capitalist world of rich, greedy landlords and how the less well-off are being forced out of cities, neighbourhoods and the like. I had expected to see a film that was a metaphor for today’s consumer culture, but it didn’t quite come across like that… and in many ways, I was a little disappointed.
I’ve never read any of Ballard’s books, but think of his work as being provocative, disturbing and frequently apocalyptic. This film was all those things…
Impressive, confusing, self-indulgent… and somewhat incoherent.
I think you probably need to see it for yourself.
PS: there were times when I almost found myself mixing up Hiddleston’s role with the one he’s playing currently in TV’s “The Night Manager”… (he's probably decided that this type of role earns him most money!).

Sunday, March 20, 2016

academy schools…

The government’s latest education “initiative”, to make ALL schools in England Academy schools by 2020, fills me with absolute horror.
Be under no illusions, the government’s plans for academies represent a disaster for our education system – a system that has already suffered devastating, damaging and potentially irreversible revisions since 2010.
Some years ago, I worked in a secondary school which took on Academy status. I certainly felt that the decision to change was taken quickly, with minimum meaningful consultation, and implemented without the full implications being explained to either staff or parents. Essentially, it appeared that the powers-that-be at the school were ‘told’ by the government that, if they wanted extra money for their budget, then Academy status was their only realistic option.
Of course, Academy status was being ‘sold’ to schools in a flagrantly sugar-coated way (schools would be able to “take control of our own futures”, “achieve confidence and independence”; achieve “innovation and creativity” and schools would be “free from the shackles of bureaucracy”!)…
The government has also been promoting Academy Schools as a way to improve standards in education. It endeavours puts a positive spin on its Academy status policy – but academic analysis has simply refuted much of its key assertions.
Academy status will mean (amongst other things): schools not having to employ qualified teachers; an end to parent governors (in future, professionals with the ‘right skills’ will replace the parents with a multitude of skills!); and removing schools out of LEA control. All academy chains and academies will effectively be able to operate in secret, avoiding any accountability to anyone, let alone society as a whole.
Ron Glatter, Emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University, describes the government’s current policy as appearing “to be based on a combination of ideological zeal and extraordinary organisational naivety” (eg. “1,000 trusts, each responsible for at least 10 academies, will be required by 2020. As of last July, there were just 39 trusts with more than 10 academies. Each new trust will need a chief executive, and the heads of some of the largest chains now have salaries in the range £150,000 to £225,000”).

I STRONGLY recommend that you watch this excellent 55 minute documentary, made by parents and teachers from Downhills School in Tottenham in their battle to stop Education secretary, Michael Gove, forcing them to become an Academy School in 2013.
As you might imagine (and no doubt read some yourself), there have also been lots of worthy words written about Academy Schools, following the Chancellor’s Budget announcement last week (nothing about such a policy in the Tory general election manifesto, of course!). You might to check out some of the following:
1.    An article in the TES by a Hampshire headteacher.
2.    Another article in the TES by a Suffolk headteacher.
3.    Reaction from the teaching profession in The Independent newspaper.
4.    Letters to The Guardian newspaper.
5.    An article in The Guardian on former education secretary David Blunkett’s reactions to the policy.
Hey, but these are just a few! No doubt, you’ll have your own examples…

Peter Bunyan, in a recent letter to The Guardian, maintains that “'executive' heads of multi-academy trusts… will have to be creative, and that is finding ways to cut costs and save money, as the supply from central government is reduced. The obvious way is to employ fewer teachers on lower salaries and employ more poorly paid teaching assistants. Another is to extend the school day, but add time saved on to extra holidays so that less money has to be spent on cleaning, general maintenance, office staff and providing meals. That is, cut down on hourly paid workers, the poorest in society. It will be interesting to see, over the coming years, what other ‘creative’ strategies will be adopted as all schools become small businesses, competing with each other for that valued ‘client’, the child”.

Apologies for all my negativity!
I read one anguished comment on facebook a couple of days ago, about the government’s latest education initiative, from a worn-down, disillusioned and angry teacher. She said: “Thank goodness that I’ll be retiring in a couple of years… I can’t stand much more of this” (or words to that effect).
I can only sympathise with her sentiments.
Sadly, it’s today’s children and tomorrow’s children (and society in general) who will have to suffer the consequences of the government’s ideology.
PS: Oh, and just in case you thought university education was all hunky dory, you might like to check out this article in The Observer newspaper: "a government adviser and crossbench peer has warned there could be an 'American-style catastrophe' in English higher education if ministers push ahead with plans to expand opportunities for private providers to become universities".

Friday, March 18, 2016

march 2016 books...

More book stuff:
A Year Of Marvellous Ways (Sarah Winman): A truly magical, life-affirming book. Our daughter had read it and loved it… and I’m in complete agreement with her! The book begins in 1947… Marvellous Ways is an 89 year-old woman who has lived alone in a remote Cornish creek for nearly all her life… she’s waiting for something, but doesn’t know what. It comes in the shape of Francis Drake, a young man recently returned from the battlefields of France. He’s on an errand to deliver a letter to a grieving father from a fellow soldier who died in the trenches. “Magical realism” is a phrase that I’ve only recently come across and this book seems to embody this… beautiful prose, imagery and a story of love, death and hope. I absolutely loved it!
The Unknown Terrorist (Richard Flanagan): This is my first book by Flanagan. I’d watched an “Imagine” TV programme about him and he seemed a fascinating, original writer. This book is set in Sydney, Australia not long after the atrocities of 9/11. It’s a thriller – on the face of it, not exactly my “cup of tea”, but I found it absolutely gripping. It’s about how a person can suddenly find themselves falsely accused of, in this case, involvement in terrorism. Politicians and the police urgently seek culprits and the media needs to sell newspapers and boost television ratings. It’s about the underworld of drugs, greed, pornography and smuggled immigrants and people’s racist attitudes towards Australia’s “non-whites”. In some ways, it reminded me of when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead at Stockwell Station, London after he was wrongly deemed to be one of the fugitives involved in a failed bombing attempt. I found myself silently pleading with the suspect to take particular courses of action (which she consistently ignored!). Compelling and chilling… a brilliant book.
The Year Of Living Danishly (Helen Russell): I LOVED this book and really enjoyed Russell’s wonderful, funny and self-deprecating writing style. Essentially, her husband gets a job at Lego HQ in Denmark and so she spends 12 months trying to discover what makes it the world’s happiest country. Yes, it’s not ALL sweetness and light but I think I’m a convert! High taxes BUT a comprehensive welfare system, free healthcare, free education (including university tuition), subsidised childcare and unemployment insurance guaranteeing 80% of your wages for two years. And there’s more, including: almost 90% of packaging is recycled; around two-thirds of Danes belong to a trade union; Danish employees are the happiest in the world and also rank top when it comes to worker motivation, work-life balance AND productivity; Danes work an average of 34 hours per week; 53% of all Danes undertake voluntary work; oh, and Danes over the age of 18 are paid to study. As Russell points out: “Yes, it’s expensive here. But it’s Denmark – it’s worth it. I don’t mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means the person serving me doesn’t a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes”. The only thing I found slightly disconcerting was the colour choice of the book’s cover (bold blue and yellow made it look just like the Swedish flag!)… but, hey, nothing can be perfect! A really good, entertaining, informative read – HIGHLY recommended!
Rose (Georgina Hounsome+Alexandra Higlett): This book is written and wonderfully illustrated by my good friends Georgie+Alex (you could almost call it a graphic short story?)… and it’s simply beautiful. The short story is about a young woman who had lost her memory. In some ways, it seems a little strange to include this very small book in my reading log, but it’s such a delightful, gentle and poignant piece of work that I just couldn’t leave it out… and the illustrations are just perfect. I’m rather in awe of my lovely friends.
The Life And Death Of Sophie Stark (Anna North): Beware… the title contains spoilers!! This is a novel about an enigmatic film director (Sophie Stark), told posthumously by the six people who loved her most (her lover; her brother; her husband; a boy at college she had a crush on; her colleague; and the journalist who followed her film-making career. The book cover describes the Stark character as “brilliant, infuriating, all-seeing and unknowable” and that’s pretty spot-on for me. She’s talented and unorthodox, selfish and generous, in and out of people’s lives without warning or agreement (her brother Robbie reckoned that all his “strongest memories of Sophie were of her leaving”). It’s a dark story of a woman “on the edge”. It’s haunting and completely captivating. In her pursuit of producing great art, Sophie uses her friends unapologetically but, in some ways, this pursuit helped them to realise their own potential. A very good book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Moira+I went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Duke Johnson/Charlie Kaufman’s intriguing, somewhat mystifying, film “Anomalisa”. It’s an unnervingly detailed puppet animation about a motivational speaker who spends one unhappy night in a Cincinnati hotel. The puppet animation initially put me in mind of Wallace+Gromit and Thunderbirds… but the very realistic sex scene (really!) soon put an end to that!
The main character, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), is an expatriate Brit in the US, who has made a successful career for himself writing motivational books about customer service (yes, I know) and is in Cincinnati to give a speech on the subject. Stone’s certainly not a charismatic character and he gives every indication of being clinically depressed or, at the very least, bored and/or alienated from the world/everyday life.
All the other characters (men, women and children) in the film, apart from one, are blandly, identically voiced by Tom Noonan… the one exception is Lisa (nicknamed “Anomalisa” by Stone), voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa is a bit of a fan (she’s a call-centre worker, has got his latest book and can’t quite believe when they get together) and Stone tracks her down when he hears her “different” voice passing outside his hotel room…
Perhaps, the sameness of voices relates to an uncanny “mask” required in order to achieve a pleasant customer service manner? Perhaps the puppetry is another reference to the invisible person on the end of the call-centre telephone?
The whole film is peculiarly creepy – the animation/puppetry is brilliant (realistic and yet completely artificial), the clothes frequently don’t fit (a bit like the Thunderbirds Parker!?) and there are times when the characters’ legs appear to be unduly short or misshapen (or was that just me?).
I found the film beguiling, sad, a little confusing (but that’s probably just me - I need to read LOTS of analytical reviews perhaps?) and completely fascinating.
I think you need to see it.
PS: I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Lisa, closing her eyes, wins Michael over with song - softly chanting Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”... it's really rather lovely. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

hail, caesar!

Moira+I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see the Coen brothers’ film “Hail, Caesar!”.  It’s essentially a nostalgic, affectionate, tongue-in-cheek (and at times laugh-out-loud funny) look back at the Hollywood of the early 1950s… complete with glorious dance routines, biblical epic filmsets, “wooden” acting, gossip columnists and communist infiltration.   
It’s something of a period comedy-cum-farce… and, although the film has a “plot” (Josh Brolin plays a studio “fixer” who deals with ensuring any scandals are kept out of the gossip columns; one of the studios biggest stars, played by toga-wearing George Clooney is kidnapped and held to ransom…), it’s only used as a bare framework on which to hang lots of Hollywood clichés.
In addition to Brolin and Clooney, the film also features Tilda Swinton,  Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren.
I feel sure that the Coen brothers have crammed the film full of clever references to Hollywood’s golden era and have educated film buffs purring in the aisles. If so, much of this went over my head, I’m afraid…
The opening paragraph of the Watershed’s blurb describes the film thus: “The Coen Brothers return with this giddy technicolour love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1950s, a carefree, gorgeously-crafted comedy that is the most fun we’ve had in years”. Well, I can’t say I absolutely agree with this summary but, clearly, the cast and the Coen brothers DO appear to have had a wonderful fun time making the film!
It’s certainly not a brilliant film (in my view), but it IS pretty good fun and very watchable.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

window wanderland

The past three nights have seen the “Window Wanderland” event take place in Bedminster, Southville and Ashton for the first time - and we’ve taken part… with the basement, living room and bedroom front windows featuring a drawing of a rather tall harbourside crane!
What on earth is “Window Wanderland” (I hear you ask)?
Well, the website describes it thus: “an inclusive grassroots event which lights up neighbourhoods with playfulness. It provides a common festive focus and encourages ‘hidden creativity’ to emerge. The displays from each event form galleries which celebrate their diversity and showcase the displays to the wider Wanderland Community, leaving a very positive legacy”. For a flavour of the event, I suggest you check out this video from the BS24/7 website.
Created in Bristol last year by Lucy Reeves Khan, the event saw lots of homes in Bishopston adorned in light-up art displays for the enjoyment of their neighbours and encouraged people to walk around their neighbourhood in groups to see the impressive creations of their fellow locals. 
This is the first year that homes within Southville, Ashton+Bedminster have participated in the event and over 150 houses, businesses and schools are taking part this weekend!

At one stage, I thought we might be able to put together something which incorporated contributions from all our Bristol family members… but, as the deadline drew closer, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen (busy, busy people!). So, in the end, I’m afraid it’s MY drawing work - with invaluable contributions from Iris and Rosa and their fat colouring pens!! It was all a bit scary: We had no idea how the image would come across to people walking past… Would it be readable? Would the limited colours be visible enough? Would it all disintegrate when we tried to “hang” the images? Would we be able to find enough decent spot-lamps to illuminate the images?
Well, in the end, our window stuff all seemed to work reasonably well (with a few misgivings)… and without too many mishaps!
All that remains to be done now (the morning after the weekend before…) is to take down all the art stuff, remove all the spotlights and cables… and allow normal daylight back into our lives!
The really lovely thing about the weekend was just how many people participated in the event – whether by producing their own window art or simply by roaming the neighbouring streets enjoying the spectacle… and, thankfully, the weather was very kind to us.
Lots of very happy, smiley people… it was very good fun!
Photo: harbourside crane view from our living room.