Saturday, June 25, 2016

june 2016 books…

More book stuff:
Notes From A Small Island (Bill Bryson): I first read this book 20 years ago (I remember enjoying it but, frankly, couldn’t remember any significant details). After living here for nearly 20 years, Bryson decided to take a jaunt around the UK prior to returning to the USA with his family… and this is the subject of the book. Bryson is opinionated, sometimes a little boring, frequently rude… and consistently very funny. A light, affectionate and enjoyable book… perfect holiday reading material.
Stet (Diana Athill): For nearly five decades, Athill acted as editor for some of the most celebrated writers in the English language. This is the second Athill book I’ve read (“After A Funeral” was the first) and I found this elegant, beautifully-written and extraordinary memoir even better. The first half provides an insight into her profession and her own career journey, whilst the second part focuses on particular writers with whom she has worked (eg. VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Brian Moore).
The Forbidden Zone (Mary Borden): This is a gem of a little book (first published in 1929). Borden, born in Chicago, set up a hospital unit on the Western Front for French soldiers in WW1 and worked as a nurse there for four years. I’d expected the book to be something of a documented account of her time there and, whilst it certainly conveyed the terror, pain and suffering of the war, her memories and impressions are written in a wonderful, almost poetic, manner which is both powerful and intimate.
Liza Of Lambeth (W Somerset Maugham): I like Maugham as a writer. This short novel, first published in 1897, was his first book and it tells the story of the trials and tribulations of an 18 year-old girl (Liza) living in Lambeth, London (set some 40 years earlier). It paints a convincing picture of working-class life in degenerative slum conditions – although with a fair sense of humour too. I have to say that I found the dialogue rather cumbersome at times (the book’s full of sentences such as: “Wot ‘as ‘e got the needle abaht?”…) - but I suppose this was unavoidable. The book apparently “made a stir” when it was first published and helped launch on his writing career.
The Soulwater Pool (Claire Williamson): I went to a “Literary Evening” at St John on the Wall, Bristol recently and Claire Williamson (a friend of our daughter Ruth, as it turns out) was one of the authors/poets reading their work. This is a short book (published in 2008) explores a domestic drama unfolding over two tense days. It features five characters and is set out in short, poetic reflections (often just a single page long) – each given a heading in the form of the named character and their location (eg.”Ella: In the Park”). It’s a surprising and subtle book – enhanced by the starkness of its rather beautiful format. Excellent.   

Friday, June 10, 2016

when marnie was there

I’m a self-confessed Studio Ghibli “nut” and so I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see the studio’s 2014 film “When Marnie Was There” (directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi – and the last film before the studio's self-imposed hiatus following the retirement of its founder Hayao Miyazaki). There were just twelve of us in the audience (I counted!) – interestingly, 8 men and 4 women… and only 4 of us could be classed as “oldies”!
The film is based on Joan Robinson’s 1967 book (of the same name) – with the location being shifted from Norfolk to a Japanese coastal town. The principal character, Anna, is a lonely, troubled foster child who’s been sent to stay with relatives. She becomes fascinated by an apparently deserted mansion… where she befriends a mysterious, western blond girl of her own age. There’s a strange sense of déjà-vu about the mansion…
I’m not saying any more – apart from the fact that the two women in front of me were drying their eyes at the end!
It’s another beautiful Studio Ghibli film – a perfect story ripe for adaptation and, as usual, with stunning animation (the closing credits must list about 100 animators!).
If you love Studio Ghibli – or are prepared to be converted(!) – this film is for you!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

EU referendum: where is the labour party?

I posted this on facebook about a month ago:
I don’t know about you, but I’m completely fed up with the EU Referendum “debate”… (and we’ve still got 14 days to go!)… and I know I shouldn’t say this, but I also have great reservations about the electorate’s ability to understand (or care about?) the key issues… and, if they do vote, not to make decisions based purely on narrow prejudice”.
I reckon that more than 90% of my facebook friends favour staying in the EU. But, as we know from last year’s General Election, there’s clearly another facebook world out there that thinks entirely differently! The polls don’t all agree, but it really does seem that the referendum result is “too close to call” at this stage (but, hey, do we trust the polls?!).

It’s clear that, for the Tory Party, the EU Referendum marks, in part, an excuse for a leadership battle (which, in turn, would lead to the government moving still further to the right). However, given that less than 25% of registered voters actually voted Tory, then you’d think that, with Labour Party and the Scottish Nationalists backing the “Remain” option, the polls would be predicting a relatively large majority for a "yes" vote.

I don’t happen to think that Messrs Cameron and Osborne have been particularly convincing in the EU Referendum debate (just don’t get me started on Boris, Gove and IDS!), but why has the Labour Party NOT been at the forefront of the “Remain” campaign too? The situation demands a powerful Labour voice but, sadly, I don’t think that Labour has been pulling its weight. Too many Labour politicians – and that includes Jeremy Corbyn and senior members of the Party - seem too ready to sit on their hands so far. Alan Johnson (a bit of a political hero of mine) has been leading “Labour In For Britain” campaign – and I feel sure he’s been arguing the case at public meetings throughout the land - but how often have I seen him being interviewed on television interviews or news programmes or in extensive newspaper articles and the like? Not enough for my liking. I cannot understand this… when SO much is at stake.

This article in The Telegraph (7 June) gave an interesting, albeit somewhat depressing, picture. Amongst its findings were:
·         73 per cent of those aged between 18-29 want to remain in the EU, while 63 per cent of those aged over 60 want to leave.
·         Guardian and Times readers are “yes”, while Mirror, Telegraph, Sun, Mail and Express are “no”.
·         Northern Ireland, Scotland, London, Wales and North-East England are “yes”, while the rest of England is “no” (with East Midlands, West Midlands, East Anglia and Yorkshire+Humberside apparently leading the “no” vote).
·         University-educated people are more likely to be “yes”.

Clearly, it seems that Immigration is one of the key issues… and, for me, Polly Toynbee (writing in The Guardian on 7 June) summed up the situation pretty well:
“Immigration is Brexit’s winner. The bottom 10% do lose out by importing unskilled labour, according to the Bank of England. For them, that’s a real effect all governments have failed to remedy. But the focus on migrants conveniently displaces deeper causes of discontent about the loss of good jobs, as a third of people are left behind, never to be property owners. It wasn’t always that way: the late 1970s were the most equal time in our history, when boardrooms dared not pay themselves obscene sums and unions stopped pay falling back. But since Margaret Thatcher took the lid off “aspiration” for the top few, inequality soared and never recovered. Labour redistributed with tax credits and invested in public services – but that’s been swept away. Brexit would reap whirlwinds for the inequality sowed over the past 35 years.
The right has used immigration and a diet of lies about the EU to distract from austerity-stricken public services, most damaging to those whose living standards have stagnated for over a decade. University education has expanded, leaving little for the other school leavers but shoddy false apprenticeships and stripped-down further education colleges. Social mobility has fossilised. There would be an awful justice if that lack of education finally did the country in.
Economists, including the governor of the Bank of England, warn that inequality is the great economic risk. Capitalism eats itself when too many get left too far behind to consume its products. Insane investment in over-inflated house prices instead of job-creating production devours the nation’s wealth. If the dispossessed up-end the economy with a leave vote, it may serve the country right – though as ever, the poorest would lose most.
Out on the doorstep over the last weeks, the class divide jumps off the canvass forms as lower income Labour voters go Brexit, and Labour MPs turn ashen-faced. Yet when confronted with what a Johnson/Gove/Farage government meant, I found many did change their mind. Will enough Labour people get out there, making the case? Jeremy Corbyn’s contribution has been more saboteur than saviour, dismissing the remain case as ‘histrionic’, ‘myth-making’, ‘prophecies of doom’. But Labour canvassers talking to their own side are good persuaders – and there is still time”.
As a nation, we’re not used to holding a referendum. For me, one of the problems about the EU Referendum is that it’s NOT really about the EU… it’s become a fight for the leadership of Tory Party.
The trouble is that, yes, in 2020 there’ll be another General Election and, if we want to, we can vote out the current government… but, once we opt out of the EU, there won't be a chance for us to simply opt back in if we feel like changing our minds.

Photo: it's from Emma Chapman's facebook page... and I think it's VERY good!

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

may-june 2016 books…

More book stuff:
The Village Cricket Match (John Parker): I must have read this book three or four times since I bought it in 1979… but I thought it was about time I read it again (it is the cricket season afterall!). Actually, it’s probably more than 20 years since I last read it… my memory of the book was that I liked its predictability, its familiarity and the cricketing memories that it evoked – a bit like sporting comfort food! It’s full of descriptions of the preparations, routines and typical characters involved in a typical Sunday afternoon cricket match in an English village. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps (for me, at least!), I found myself getting quite irritated by the affectionate, enthusiastic, almost sugary, prose (written in the 1970s, but it felt as it could have been written 50 years earlier) – and it frequently seemed as if I was reading a story from one of my boyhood comics. My book is on its very last legs (its pages are about to fall out)… so I suspect this might be the last time I read it. Definitely not a literary classic, but hey!
Occupied Territories (Garth Hewitt): Garth Hewitt is the founder of the Amos Trust (“a small, creative Christian human rights agency that works with vibrant grassroots partners around the world”). I briefly acted as one of its volunteers at Greenbelt perhaps 10 years ago and again met Garth and his wife Gill on Iona in 2012 when they attended a conference to discuss the division of the West Bank, the encroachment of Israeli settlements and the impact on the lives of Palestinians. I bought this book when I attended an evening organised by Kairos Palestine in Bristol in mid-May 2016. Specifically, the book talks about the occupied city of Bethlehem (and now surrounded by a wall that reaches 25 feet high). It’s an incredibly impressive book which bluntly describes life in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It talks about a non-violent response to the current, depressing situation – one that is both pro-Palestinian AND pro-Israeli; and one that reflects the views and advice from Jewish and Muslim individuals who have committed themselves to stand for justice. Again and again, I found myself underlining passages from the book (frequently quotes from prominent academics, politicians or church leaders)(I’ve put some of them together in this blog post). Thought-provoking and challenging.
And Still I Rise (Maya Angelou): This is a book of some of Angelou’s poems… she definitely had a way with words! She wrote with such wisdom and courage, but also with wit and generosity. This is lovely book – which I’ll no doubt read again and again over the years – which is both accessible and challenging. Reading her words, you can almost hear her performing her poetry.
A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess): Like most people, I suspect, I’ve seen the film… but I’d never read the book (published in 1962) until now. It’s a shocking, frightening book about a subculture of extreme youth violence. It’s set in the “near future” (could the future be now?!) and the book’s teenage protagonist, Alex, narrates his violent exploits and his experiences with state authorities intent on reforming him. Alex’s confessions are written in “nadsat” (a secret language), which makes the book quite difficult to read… and yet I found it was a bit like reading/hearing a Shakespeare play – once your brain had adapted to the strangeness of the language, it was relatively easy to follow. It’s brilliantly inventive, but the violent subject matter makes for uncomfortable reading. Very impressive nevertheless.
The Case Of The Late Pig (Margery Allingham): Some light summer reading… my first “classic crime” novel by Margery Allingham (first published in 1937)… and, therefore, my first of her books featuring detective Albert Campion in the leading role. Campion’s somewhat mysterious world is very much that of upper-class England – marginally watered-down by the fact that he is aided in his work by his manservant Lugg (somewhat uncouth and with a background in burglary!). This short novel was enjoyable, but certainly not particularly remarkable or notable. I have to say, I wasn’t particularly “taken” by Campion as a character, but perhaps I need to read more of his adventures before being able to make a valid judgement?

Friday, June 03, 2016

versus: the life and films of ken loach…

As you might know (or be able to guess!), Ken Loach is a bit of a hero of mine!
This afternoon, I went along to the Watershed to see Louise Osmond’s impressive documentary about the great man and his work (it was its opening screening at the Watershed… and, sadly, there were only another SIX fans in the audience to appreciate the film!). This year will see Loach celebrate his 80th birthday, release his 50th major work and commemorate the 50th anniversary of his landmark television drama Cathy Come Home(!).
Loach used to run up against the establishment figures and corporations on a regular basis and he frequently found that this ideas and views ran against those who were due to provide the financial backing for a project (eg. television companies who received the bulk of their income from the government of the day) – and, so, many projects had to be abandoned. Indeed, Loach didn’t direct a single film for 12 years in the 1980s/90s.
The documentary is a funny, provocative, revealing account of Loach’s life and career – in fact, his unexpected humour and often “riotous conflict” both came as somewhat surprising. Indeed, Loach’s long-term producer, Rebecca O’Brien, was wonderfully quoted in the programme notes as saying that “Ken can start a row in an empty room”!
He’s clearly one of the most determinedly political filmmakers in the history of cinema… he’s fearless and utterly determined in his work. In fact, he had decided to retire in 2013, but was so incensed by the Tory 2015 General Election victory that he felt he still had more to say… and the resulting film, “I, Daniel Blake”, duly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last month (can’t wait to see it).
When Loach eventually dies (hopefully not for several years yet), Louise Osmond’s documentary will be shown throughout the world… but, in the meantime, I would definitely recommend that you see it NOW!
PS: The last Loach film I saw at the cinema was the excellent “The Spirit of ’45” (2013). Two of my all-time favourite Loach films are the brilliant “Kes” (1969) and “Looking For Eric” (2009)… but, as the bloke sitting a few seats away from me this afternoon observed: “I think they need to have a special Loach Season at the Watershed!”.
PPS: IMPORTANT: Ken Loach will be at the 6pm (pay-what-you-can) screening this Sunday 5 June for a Q+A session… it’s tickets only (although I suspect it will already be a sell-out).