Saturday, April 30, 2016

son of saul

I went along to the Watershed yesterday to see Laszlo Nemes’ acclaimed film “Son of Saul” (winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Golden Globe) – an unforgettable Holocaust drama set in the Aushwitz II-Birkenau death camp in 1944 (I still struggle to realise that the holocaust happened just FIVE years before I was born).
Saul (brilliantly played by Géza Röhrig), is a Jewish prisoner who has been made part of the Sonderkommando, inmates given tiny, temporary privileges in return for policing their own extermination. They have to deal with the day-to-day business of herding bewildered prisoners out of the trains and up to the very doors of the gas chambers… and then removing the bodies. The film pulls no punches. It actually STARTS with a gas chamber scene.
It was shot entirely on 35mm film, and for most of it, the focus is on Saul’s agonised face, in tight close-up almost throughout - with the surrounding and background details often left blurred or indistinctly glimpsed.
In the gas chamber, Saul discovers the body of a boy, whom he believes to be his son, and he sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give him a proper burial.
At times, I found it difficult to understand precisely what was going on… but, ultimately, this didn’t matter.
It’s a completely uncompromising and remarkable film. Unrelenting and courageous.
It’s not an easy film to watch, but one that I highly recommend that you do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

april 2016 books…

More book stuff:
The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Richard Flanagan): A simply brilliant, exhausting book… about, amongst other things, the despair, degradation and nightmare of a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. Reading it, I felt as though I was actually experiencing what it must have been like to be a prisoner. The book’s flysheet describes it as a “savagely beautiful novel… about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth…” – and I can’t argue with that. Flanagan is a wonderful writer and I was particularly drawn to his focus on how hard it is to live after survival. Dedicated to his father (Prisoner 335 – who, himself, was a POW prisoner), it’s a book about the incredible power of the human spirit. A stunning, wonderfully powerful book – probably in my all-time top ten list of books. Yes, THAT good!
Attention All Shipping (Charlie Connelly): Moira found this book in a charity shop and thought it would appeal to me. It’s essentially a book about the Shipping Forecast – or, rather, the thirty-one sea areas that make up the Met Office’s Shipping Forecast on Radio4. Connelly decides it would be a good idea to take a journey around all these sea areas. Frankly, it took me some time to “get into” the book. It seemed like a pretty spurious excuse for a book and, initially at least, I found his “humour” just a little tiresome and a “bit over-the-top”. However, I gradually warmed to both his task and his writing style and the book proved to be a fascinating, informative and amusing travel book.
Ariel (Sylvia Plath): Plath died in 1963. She committed suicide, aged just 30. She was married to Ted Hughes and I’d previously read his book of poems (“Birthday Letters”), published 35 years after Plath’s death. I have to admit I struggled somewhat with “Ariel” (published in 1965) – the writing is beautifully eloquent but, all too often, I found myself labouring over the meaning of individual poems (perhaps my intellect just wasn’t up to it?!) and yearned to read some background notes for each of them to help put them in context. I found them very dark and they frequently seemed to point to her impending suicide. Interestingly, I’ve just read an article by Lauren Niland in The Guardian, dated October 2012 (“Sylvia Plath – reviews from the archive”) in which she points out that: “The majority of her poetry was published posthumously, and most of the reviews of her work react against the knowledge of her suicide. Reading through reviews of her work, before her poetry became so intrinsically linked to her death, is an interesting experiment”… Bernard Bergonzi, for example, had reviewed her first collection of poems (published in 1960) and had admired Plath’s “highly personal tone and way of looking at the world", concluding that he "read this collection with considerable pleasure". By and large, it was only AFTER her death that her “Ariel” poems “established the idea that she raced headlong into suicide through her art”, as Niland puts it.
Starter For Ten (David Nicholls): This is a book (published in 2003) about a student (Brian Jackson) in his first year at university in 1985. The “Starter for Ten” title is a reference to Jackson’s place on the college’s University Challenge team. It felt like I was reading a book entitled “Adrian Mole, aged eighteen-and-a-quarter”… it was entertaining, funny and, at the same time, an excruciating reminder of all those embarrassing memories of my early years of university life (actually, not ALL my early memories are embarrassing, I hasten to add!). An enjoyable, albeit “unchallenging”, read.
Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton): Published in 1911, this short novel is about life in a fictional, desolate town in New England. Ethan Frome is a man with a history of thwarted dreams. He and his never-happy and sickly wife are joined by his wife’s cousin (who lives with them to help out around the house and farm). It’s a sad, haunting, compelling tale of their relationship – told in “flashback” form, 24 years after a life-changing incident. I found it a very good read.

Monday, April 25, 2016

music at saint stephen’s, bristol…

I know we’re coming a little late to the party (as it were), but Moira and I have been to a couple of excellent concerts at Saint Stephen’s Church – right in the heart of Bristol city centre – over the past three days.
The first one was last Saturday evening, entitled “Sanctuary”, hosted by Friendly Stage Bristol and Foundation Bristol, featuring The Rubber Wellies (followed by an Open Mic session) – in aid of the wonderful, local charity B-Friend, who work with refugees. Lots of happy people in attendance, a great atmosphere and fine music (and a lot of money raised for B-Friend). I think there’s another Friendly Stage evening being organised for later in the year.
The second was today’s “Monday Lunchtime Concert” (1.10-1.55pm and free!). These have been happening every week (except Bank Holidays) for quite a long time - certainly well before we became members of the Community of Saint Stephen’s, 9 months or so ago. Today’s concert featured the excellent singer songwriter Rosie Sleightholme (who has a voice to match Judy Collins and Eddi Reader and an ability to play guitar, ukulele, banjo and piano - plus, apparently, cello, violin, electric bass and zither(!) – to an extremely high standard!).

The type of music at these concerts varies. I see that May’s programme includes a jazz-rocker teaming up with a trumpeter; an eclectic concert featuring TWO double bassists; and a singer/guitarist playing Americana+Country Blues.
Not only that, there’s a concert this Thursday, 28 April at 8pm (tickets £7, I think?), featuring highly-acclaimed folk singer Saska Griffiths-Moore plus three other top Bristol female singers (tickets from
Saint Stephen’s Café is also now open again and well worth a visit (9.30am-3.30pm Monday to Friday)… and features informal music sessions most Fridays in the café (one or two sets, sometime between 12 noon and 3pm). These have only recently started but, already, are proving to be very popular.
You can find out more on the Saint Stephen’s website:

Talking to some of the people involved in organising these concerts/sessions, I sense that Saint Stephen’s is going to become an increasingly important centre for music and performance within the city over the next five years.
Exciting times!
Photos: Rosie Sleightholme at today’s lunchtime concert (top) and The Rubber Wellies at the “Sanctuary” concert on Saturday 23 April (bottom).

Monday, April 11, 2016

march-april 2016 books

More book stuff:
60 Degrees North (Mallachy Tallack): Tallack has spent most of his life in Shetland, which is itself on the sixtieth parallel. This is an account of the author’s journey westward, exploring the landscapes of the parallel (taking in such locations as Greenland, Alaska, Siberia and St Petersburg) before returning to Shetland. Tallack decided to make this journey not long after his father had died… and he admits that it was his “fixation” on the parallel that triggered his adventure (and hence this book). It felt a little like a pilgrimage that Tallack believed he’d been called to undertake before he felt able to accept Shetland as his “home”. It’s a very readable, frank and personal, book but one that, for me, lacked the quality and instincts of someone like Robert MacFarlane.
Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (E W Hornung): I bought this on a whim in a charity bookshop. The Raffles character has always had a vague appeal but, I have to admit, I was distinctly under-whelmed by these eight short stories. I didn’t find either the quality of the stories or the cleverness of the plots impressive in any way. Hornung had apparently been encouraged to write a series about a public school villain by his brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m afraid there is absolutely no contest between Raffles+Bunny and Holmes+Watson. Very disappointing.
My Life In Houses (Margaret Forster): This is our Book Group’s next book. I have to admit that this is my first Forster book, so I read it without having acquired any ‘baggage’ from her other work (I knew she was married to Hunter Davies, but that was about it). It’s an interesting format: an autobiography (of sorts) written through her experiences of the houses she has lived in during the course of her life. Her first home was a council house in Carlisle and, until her early 20s at least, she clearly struggled to make ends meet… but I later found myself getting a little annoyed when she (and her husband) – as a life time socialist - began acquiring another home in the Algarve and then one in the Lake District, and another one near their parents’ homes in Carlisle (and ended up living six months a year in the Lake District and six months in London). I have to say, I didn’t particularly warm to her as a person. The book was published in 2014 and was written after she’d been diagnosed with cancer again – she’d had breast cancer in the 1970 (she died in February 2016) – and, for me, it comes across as just an ordinary, light (if rather charming) reflection of her life through her various homes. I felt that “I could have written that” – and I must admit that it did make me starting to list the houses I’d lived in during the course of MY life! I suspect that in many ways it was written because she simply needed to keep on her routine of writing that had become her way of life. I can certainly empathise that one’s domestic surroundings affect one’s mood and quality of life, but I would have liked “people” to have featured rather more than they did.
A Clue To The Exit (Edward St Aubyn): Ok, here’s the scenario: a successful screenwriter, ex-husband and absent father has been given six months to live… he heads for the south of France and resolves to stake half his fortune on a couple of turns of the roulette wheel and to write a novel… about consciousness. The novel is awful (about “spiralling self-awareness”) and he gives it up… As far as the roulette wheel is concerned, he comes to an agreement with a sex-obsessed, compulsive gambling, woman – he will allow her one million francs a day in exchange for passionate sex in luxury hotels. This might sound absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking… actually, I found it somewhat tedious (but, then again, maybe I wasn’t clever enough to appreciate it?). I’ve seen the book described as a “subtly disturbing comedy”… well, it didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid!
Regeneration (Pat Barker): This is the first book of the “Regeneration Trilogy”… somewhat typically, I read book two first (last December)! The book is set in the Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland in 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked officers (soldiers from the ranks aren’t given such ‘consideration’) – with a view to making them fit(?) enough to return to the front-line in France. It weaves fact and fiction (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, in addition to Rivers, feature prominently). The books starts with Sassoon’s passionate declaration, written in July 1917 (which he described as “an act of wilful defiance of military authority”), against the prolongation of the war: “I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed”. It’s a powerful, inspiring, moving book which tells the chilling (largely previously-ignored) story of the ‘silenced voices’ from World War I. A frightening evocation of our attitude towards war (and its objectives of the time)… and the men brutalised by the experience.