Monday, October 16, 2017

september-october 2017 books...

Please, Mister Postman (Alan Johnson): This is the second of Johnson’s brilliant three memoirs (somewhat typically, I managed to read them out of order: 1, 3, 2!). He’s a wonderful writer – evocative, informative, self-deprecating, very funny and sometimes very sad. His is an incredible story… born in 1950; orphaned aged 12 when his mother died (his father had walked out); effectively brought up by his amazing older sister; passed his eleven-plus but left school when he was 15; worked for Tesco as a shelf-stacker before becoming a postman, aged 18. In the same year, he was married and became a father (his wife also had another daughter)… he went on to become General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union before entering parliament as Labour MP for Hull West+Hessle in 1997… and filled a wide variety of cabinet positions in both the Blair and Brown governments, including Home Secretary. This memoir essentially deals with the transition from boyhood to his time as a full-time Union official in the late 1980s… with all its responsibilities and time-consuming meetings and nationwide (and international) travel – which, sadly, resulted (at least in part) in the end of his first marriage. Probably, the best set of political autobiographies I’ve ever read. Very highly recommended!
Get Me The Urgent Biscuits (Sweetpea Slight): Moira bought this book recently on a whim(?) when we recently re-visited the wonderful Book House bookshop from our days living in Thame. It’s a memoir of an “Assistant’s Adventures in Theatreland”… how an innocent 18 year-old, with dreams of becoming an actress, arrives in London for work experience for a West End Theatre. She ends up being “stolen” by a formidable/demanding/eccentric producer (Thelma Holt), being re-named “Sweetpea” (her real name was Jane Slight) and continued to work for her for the next 20 years. As one might imagine, it’s full of amusing stories of her ‘adventures’ and the people met along the way… but, actually, for me, although I found it mildly entertaining (and somewhat informative about the workings of the theatre), it won’t live long in my memory! 
Velvet Elvis (Rob Bell): I first read this book eight years ago and, following a recent conversation with a good friend, decided that it was about time I read it again. From last time, I recall feeling incredibly disappointed when I realised that ‘his’ church attracted some 11,000 people to its three gatherings on Sundays (I’m very much a small, intimate, church community man, I’m afraid). Bell is a very good communicator (and very honest about his own spiritual struggles) and there were certainly several passages that resonated for/with me… however, overall, I came away feeling a little disappointed (not quite disillusioned, but…).
Days In The Sun (Neville Cardus): Another Cardus cricket book - this one was first published in 1924 (my copy was published in 1949). More wonderful, evocative, lyrical prose from Neville Cardus about cricket from a bygone age. All observations written in the early 1920s, but frequently making reference to pre-WW1 cricket and even cricketers from the 1870s (eg. Spofforth – “The Demon Bowler”!). All fascinating stuff (if cricket’s your ‘thing’!), like “it was June 1864 before the MCC legalised overhead bowling”; characters such as the England captain JWHT Douglas (no mention of Christian name, just his four initials!); calls, from certain quarters, for the game to be “speeded up” – like the article in ‘The Times’ in 1919 coming out with an “ingenious suggestion involving the banishment of the left-handed batsman because he interferes with bustle” (we might never have known the likes of Lara, Sobers, Gower, Pollock, Lloyd, Gilchrist etc had this been implemented!); and incidental comments such as the morning of a Roses match where, in two and a quarter hours (and in front of 26,000 spectators), Lancashire bowled 57 overs and 110 runs were scored – compare this to the current (I think) Test Match requirement for a minimum number of 15 overs to be bowled per hour! Somewhat predictably, I loved it.
The Broken Road (Patrick Leigh Fermor): This is the final book of Leigh Fermor’s trilogy (I’ve read the first “A Time of Gifts” (published in 1977), but not the second “Between the Woods and the Water” (published in 1986). They tell the story of his walk, as an 18 year-old (and on incredibly limited funds – he started off with £2 in his pocket and a tiny monthly allowance that he collected from post offices en route), from the Hook of Holland in 1933 to Constantinople. He never completed his third book (from the Iron Gates to Constantinople) but, on his death in 2011 (aged 96), he left behind an unfinished manuscript. The task to get his final draft published was undertaken by his editors and literary executors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper in 2013. It’s an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary, brilliant and very private man. Amazingly, he wrote the first two volumes from memory (he had his first diary stolen in Munich and his various letters to his mother were stored in the Harrods Depository during the war and subsequently destroyed ‘unclaimed’. He did however make some notes for the last leg of his journey. Leigh Fermor has a wonderful gift for description and an eye for detail (not to mention something of a gift for languages). It’s an amazing adventure at a unique time (just before ‘everything’ was about to change with the coming of WW2): the people he met, the places he saw, the background historical contexts he was able to highlight… and all written down, in great detail, decades after the events. The book finishes with extracts from Leigh Fermor’s ‘Green Diary’, written in 1935 when he explored Mount Athos (a mountain and peninsula in north-eastern Greece and an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism – containing some 20 monasteries) over a period of 3 weeks in 1935. A really wonderful book.

Friday, October 13, 2017

loving vincent...

Moira and I went to the Watershed this afternoon (my second visit in three days!) to see the much-acclaimed “Loving Vincent” film directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.
The Watershed’s blurb describes it thus: “The world’s first fully painted feature film brings together the paintings of Vincent van Gogh to tell his extraordinary life story – and every one of the 65,000 frames of the film is an oil painting, hand-painted by a small army of 125 professionals”. All these oil paintings are created in the style of van Gogh to provide a beautiful, animated end product – a truly magical, astonishing achievement… which apparently took seven years to come to fruition.
I’d previously seen some advance publicity and felt sure that the film would certainly be worth SEEING… but I didn’t know much more than that. Well, it tells the (imagined) story of van Gogh’s final days and his controversial death (a bullet wound to the stomach: was it an accident or a suicide?).

I’d actually prepared myself to be disappointed by the film (after all my prior expectations), but am very happy to say that I thought it was very impressive and very beautifully put together. I think my only reservation is that I feel that the film is in a danger of making the artist something of a celebrity cliché (or perhaps we’d already done this ourselves by our admiration and adulation?). In just a little over 10 years, van Gogh produced more than 800 paintings – that’s a pretty incredible achievement(!) – and it’s left me wanting to understand more about the artist’s life (and his work).

But back to the film… some of the images/frames worked more convincingly than others but, overall, I thought it was a really impressive film… and an astonishing achievement.
Very, very well worth seeing – you’ll be amazed!
PS: I’d chatted to Iris about the film a few days ago and said that I thought it was quite remarkable that van Gogh, who had died so young (he was 37 years old), had become one of the most famous artists of all time and yet he’d never sold a single painting. She immediately corrected me and said: “actually, Grandad, he sold two” (according to the film credits at the end, it seems that he actually sold ONE in his lifetime, but I love that Iris had a view about him!). x

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

tawai: a voice from the forest…

I went to the Watershed this afternoon (I was going to undertake a long walk to Ashton Court/Leigh Woods, but the weather forecast put me off). So, did I go to see Blade Runner 2049? Nope (especially after Jonnie Treloar’s recent negative review!)… but, hey, I haven’t even seen the original.
No, instead, I decided to check out Bruce Parry+Mark Ellam’s “Tawai: A Voice From The Forest” (you may well know Parry from his various “Tribe” documentaries on the BBC – although I don’t think I’ve ever watched any – in which he lived with indigenous peoples in an effort to understand their way of life). ‘Tawai’ is the word that the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Borneo use to describe their inner feeling of connection to nature.

Essentially, this is a film which looks at a deeper understanding of indigenous peoples and how their way of life can benefit those in the industrialised world. It’s a thought-provoking, poetic documentary (with some beautiful photography) – compiled from the forests of Borneo, the Saddhu of India on the Ganges, the Amazon jungle and the Isle of Skye – which explores what might have changed within the human psyche since we stopped roaming and began to settle. What can we learn from how nomadic tribes around the world live and how might this help us create more balanced ways of relating to each other and the natural world?
It’s a rather striking, sincere film – perhaps a little too earnest for my taste? Clearly, Parry has a great love and appreciation for his subject (plus lots of experience of living with nomadic tribes), but I was disappointed that most of the conversations (both with individuals from the various tribes and the ‘experts’) were all rather one-way, with Parry apparently unable to contribute to, expand on or question the things that were being said. Now, some of this might well be due to the difficulties of translation (but other documentary-makers have coped without undue difficulties) or perhaps it was Parry’s lack of intellect (I might be being rather unfair here?) or speed of thought? Either way, for me, the film’s message lacked a degree of clarity and emphasis.
It’s a fascinating film with a significant message: Tawai providing (in the words of the Watershed programme) “a powerful voice to indigenous peoples that demands to be heard before it is completely lost”… but didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

grayson perry: the most popular art exhibition ever!…

Moira and I were due to attend the preview night of Grayson Perry’s exhibition at the Arnolfini on Tuesday 26 September but, due to the queues, we decided to opt out – afterall, it’s a free exhibition and we can walk round it as often as we like between now and Christmas.
I love Perry’s work but, probably, most of all, I love his approach to his art and his wonderful ability to talk about it (and other stuff) in a brilliantly straightforward, engaging way. This quote from the exhibition programme sums it up quite nicely:
“Art can be intellectually stretching, moving and fun at the same time… People, on the whole, come to art exhibitions on their day off. They do not want to feel that they are just doing their homework. Maybe it’s time to take the sting out of the word popular. When I came up with this title – The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – I liked it because it chimed with one of my ongoing ambitions – to widen the audience for art without dumbing it down. Mainly I liked it because it made me giggle, but popularity is a serious business. Ask any politician.”

I love the way he frequently uses words in his work (eg. “flat whites against racism”!). I find his stuff funny, entertaining, profound, poignant, beautiful… and thoroughly thought-provoking. I’ve listened to his Reith Lectures, I’ve watched his TV documentaries, I’ve been to hear him at Colston Hall and I’ve seen his work at a number of exhibitions over the years - the first time he made a real impact on me was when we went to see his exhibition “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” at the British Museum in 2011 (yes, it took me some time to ‘get him’!). He comes across as just a really nice, ordinary bloke (if there is such an animal?), but there’s clearly far more to him that that (like "talented artist"!?).
He’s become a national treasure.
Whoever would have thought, say as little as 20 years ago, that an Essex-born, straight-talking transvestite would achieve a status such as this?
Of course, he has used his cross-dressing to his advantage – it singled him out and made him instantly recognisable within an art world that had perhaps become rather too predictable (I was at college with sculpture/artist Andrew Logan – not on the same course, I hasten to add – and was very aware of how used his appearance and style to mark himself out in a vaguely similar way)(at college, he decorated his room in the form of a country meadow - with the radiator resembling a sheep, plenty of blue sky and clouds and greengrocers “grass” used as his carpet!).
 
Although we didn’t actually get into Perry’s preview at the Arnolfini, we did see him mingling with the crowds – completely at ease with himself and utterly accepted (and adored?) by all who had come to see his show.
I think it’s quite brilliant how Perry has managed to challenge (in a gentle, amusing but determined way) prejudices that so many of us have perhaps harboured – and I very much include myself in this – on a whole variety of things. It’s not anything to do with him condoning people’s behaviour or characteristics or eccentricities or views, it’s just that he seems genuinely interested in finding out more about their circumstances and listening to their stories.  
It’s great that the exhibition will be at the Arnolfini for the next three months… I’ve been once thus far (and thoroughly enjoyed it – even though I’ve seen most of the pieces before - and just know that I’ll be dropping in on a regular basis to focus my attention on just a handful of pieces at a time (there is so much to see in every piece of his work).
Photo: A quick collage of various images taken at the exhibition (and, yes, it’s good that he’s perfectly happy for people to take photographs of his work!).

Friday, September 29, 2017

on body and soul…

I had one of those special, surprising, wonderful afternoons in the cinema today.
First thing this morning, I’d decided I fancied going to see a film (it had been perhaps a month since my last film?). All well and good, but the ONLY film at the Watershed this afternoon (and, as you know, I’m pretty sniffy about going to other local cinemas!) was Ildiko Enyedi’s film “On Body and Soul”.
Although the film won the top Golden Bear Award in Berlin, I was very nearly put off when I read that the action takes place in a Hungarian slaughterhouse and that audiences were warned that “there are some very graphic scenes of the various stages of animal slaughter”)… AND YET, it sounded intriguing:
Maria (wonderfully played by Alexandra Borbely) is the new quality controller at the abattoir and has mild autism, whilst finance manager Endre (again, brilliantly played by Geza Morcsanyi… and, amazingly, making his screen debut) is suffering with his own personal issues and a dead arm. Work is grim, but (thanks to a somewhat strange police investigation into a theft at the abattoir) Maria and Endre discover that they have been dreaming the same idyllic reoccurring dream (where they wander through snowy forests as deer!).
This might all sound rather weird, but it actually develops into a REALLY beautiful, romantic film.
It’s absolutely exquisite and I think, if you can stand the animal slaughter scenes, then you absolutely MUST see it.
It’s definitely one of my very favourite films of the year thus far.

Monday, September 25, 2017

end of another cricket season...

The end of another cricket season and, once again, sadly, I managed to watch only a few games (for ‘few’, read ‘three’!). Yet again, I find myself making promises that NEXT season, “I’ll DEFINITELY watch more games”!
I love the relatively gentle tempo of county cricket… being part of a tiny crowd of (mainly) old men who seem to spend most of their time talking about the ‘old days’ (although, to be fair to Somerset, they attract daily crowds of perhaps up to 5,000 whereas at the Gloucestershire game I attended a couple of weeks ago, there couldn’t have been much more than 200 people present) . I much prefer watching the four-day games (they used to be three-day back in my youth) to the one-dayers or the Twenty20 versions and, over recent years, have watched games at Taunton, Bristol and Birmingham.

I’ve been reading Neville Cardus’s wonderful book “The Summer Game” (first published in 1928 – my copy was published in 1949) – hugely evocative and very beautifully written. It’s conjured up lots of my own cricket-watching memories…
Growing up in Birmingham, the Birmingham+District Cricket League was readily accessible to us and I used to go and watch West Bromwich Dartmouth (just up the road from us) – starting perhaps in 1960(?). I well remember being mesmerised by watching Roly Jenkins in action (born in 1918, he was a talented leg-spin bowler who’d played for England several times)… as well as his bowling (and his age!), my principle memories of him were that a) he always wore his cap, even when bowling, and b) he always used to field at mid-on/off and, if the ball went past him (which wasn’t difficult), he used to let one of the other players run after it!
My early county championship games were at Edgbaston, watching Warwickshire. I’m pretty sure that my grandfather Fred was a member, but I don’t think he ever took me to a game. I certainly remember going to Edgbaston in 1960, 1961 and 1962… Warwickshire ‘heroes’ included MJK Smith, AC Smith, Tom Cartwright, Jack Bannister, Jim Stewart, Billy Ibadulla, Norman Horner, David Brown, John Jameson and Ronnie Miller (I once watched Horner and Ibadulla put on 377 for the first wicket). The wonderful thing in those days (which I very much regret in the current game) was that a) international cricketers were always in the county game (these days they rarely feature) and b) the touring sides ALWAYS played each of the 17 county sides (Durham have subsequently been added). I was fortunate enough to see South Africa, Australia and the West Indies play Warwickshire in 1960, ’61 and ’62 respectively – which meant that I saw such stars as Richie Benaud, Bobby Simpson, Neil Harvey, Graham McKenzie, Wally Grout, Jackie McGlew, Hugh Tayfield, Frank Worrall, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith (sadly, I don’t think I ever saw Gary Sobers).
These, of course, were the days before helmets for batsmen and close fielders – memories of MJK Smith fielding in his cap and bespectacled at short-leg, just a couple of yards from the bat… apparently fearless!

One thing I certainly regret these days is the fact that, with the massive increase in the number of international matches (five day test matches, one dayers and Twenty20 games), the county game has become very much ‘second division’ in cricketing terms – with current international cricketers only making intermittent appearances for their county sides due to their other contractual commitments (see footnotes at the end!). It means that county teams are largely made up of keen young players endeavouring to make their mark (which is obviously a good thing, but…); run-of-the-mill/average players who are never going to make an international side; or a few players who are perhaps on the cusp of international cricket – some having been discarded or desperately wanting to be given another chance and some simply ‘waiting for the call’. Sadly, virtually the only way to see the ‘star’ players is to go and watch the international games.

It’s very strange looking back… I well remember looking for the cricket scores every morning during the summer in my father’s Daily Mail (sorry!). I even recall the annual Gentlemen v Players matches (between professionals and amateurs, which were thankfully abandoned in 1963). I well remember the Annual Sports Argus Cricket Annual produced by the local newspaper at the start of each season (why on earth did I ever throw them away?).

When I was at college in Oxford (1968 was my first summer), I frequently dropped in to University Parks to watch (for free) the university play one of the county sides – at a time when the university games were given ‘first class’ status. After leaving college in 1973, I got a job with The Oxford Architects Partnership in Oxford city centre and managed to negotiate a ‘deal’ with one of the partners allowing me to have extended summer lunch hours so I could cycle to University Parks to watch an hour’s cricket. Imran Khan played for the university in 1973-75 and I have a memory of seeing him complete his double century against one of the counties (unfortunately, I can’t access any of the old scorecards without signing up and paying a subscription for one of the online cricket archive sites!). Journalist and BBC Test Match Special commentator Vic Marks also captained the university side in 1975+76.

Somewhat ridiculously, I’ve never been to a test match (I probably need to rectify this deficiency!), but I have been to watch a game at Lords. It was the University match between Oxford and Cambridge in perhaps 1998(?). At that time, I was a partner of Brocklehurst Architects and one of our employees, Mike Kennedy, was a cricket-mad Middlesex supporter (his only question when interviewed about working for us was “can you allow me to watch all the Middlesex games – home and away - during the cricket season?”!). Because he was a long-standing Middlesex CC member (and Lord’s is their home ground) and someone who appeared to “know everyone”, he obtained special permission for me to enter the hallowed Pavilion and get into the England (ie. home) dressing room, as it were… from where we walked down the main stairs (in my imagination, I was padded up and carrying my bat… obviously), through the Long Room, down the pavilion steps, out on to the outfield and then walk to the wicket! An amazing privilege that very few non-players receive. A very special cricketing memory.

As far as my own playing ‘career’ was concerned, I was just a pretty ordinary player - although I did captain our junior school team - I recall taking seven wickets at Handsworth Park against Grove Lane School on the day Princess Margaret was married (but she didn’t send me a congratulatory card!) and was vice-captain of the Handsworth Grammar first eleven. I was very much a utility player – reasonably gifted, but nothing special! I did get a trial for Warwickshire Schoolboys, but utterly failed to make a good impression. Indeed, batsmen were given two overs each and I seem to remember being ‘out’ five times in twelve balls – I don’t recall the bowler, but he probably went on to become an international superstar (of course)!! – and my bowling failed to take a single wicket. In my own mind, of course, I was a VERY accomplished batsman/wicket-keeper/leg spinner (remember, this was WELL before Shane Warne was born!). I also very much enjoyed playing cricket for my office (The Oxford Architects Partnership) in later years and we were very fortunate to be able play on a variety of wonderful Oxford College grounds – including the University second eleven ground of New College… where I scored my one and only half century (still no blue plaque!).  

So, today, I went to watch a division one relegation battle at Taunton (Somerset need to win to stand a chance of avoiding relegation). The last game of the season… Day One, Somerset v Middlesex. Lots of doubt over the weather… would it rain? The forecast wasn’t exactly brilliant, but I decided to risk it anyway – afterall, this was my LAST chance to watch a game this season. Would it be a momentous day when I see the burgeoning talents of future (or past) England stars?
I HAD been intending to watch the mid-table second division game at Bristol, between Gloucestershire and Derbyshire… but the weather forecast didn’t sound good (certainly worse than Taunton – but who knows with these forecasts!?). In the event, I made the right call… there were only 26 overs at Bristol due to rain and the wet outfield, whereas there was a full day’s exciting cricket at Taunton (Somerset 236 all out, Middlesex 18-3 at the close)… lots of action, a few dropped catches and a dramatic comeback by Somerset at the end of the day (and eleven of the 13 wickets fell to spinners).
Photo: The Middlesex players “team bonding” before taking to the field after lunch…
PS: Actually, although there was only one current England player featuring in today’s game at Taunton (Dawid Malan), the Middlesex team did also feature three players who have played for England over the past three years – Steven Finn, Sam Robson and Nick Compton)… Somerset’s only contribution was 41 year-old Marcus Trescothick – who last played for England 11 years ago.
PPS: Yes, there are more competitions (one-dayers and Twenty20s) these days, but it seems astonishing to me that the last game of the English domestic season finishes just THREE days before the start of October! This is supposed to be a “summer game” for goodness sake – there are only SO many jumpers that a cricketer can wear on the field at any one time (and hugely unfair on the spectators – the idea of them wrapped up in their winter coats and thermals for 6 or 7 hours a day for the four-day County Championship games seems faintly ridiculous!)… In 1960, for example, things seemed far more sensible – with the last game finishing on 6 September.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

september 2017 books...

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth): I picked up this book by chance when we were in Stratford and thought it looked ‘interesting’. Well, it was utterly absorbing… it’s about a man living alone on a west-country moor (he’s done this for the past 13 months)… we’re not quite certain what he’s left behind or why he’s on the moor, battling with both himself and the elements. It’s about survival and coping with a hermit’s life… and, gradually, about dealing with the animal he begins to see in the margins of his vision… which becomes a powerful obsession. The writing style is quite brilliant – brutal, relentless… you have a very real sense of the man’s emotions, his despair and yet, also, the logic of his struggle. At times, it actually felt a bit as though I was reading Cormac MacCarthy’s “The Road” (which I also loved). A wonderful, powerful book. 
The Long And Winding Road (Alan Johnson): I’d previously read Johnson’s first memoir “This Boy” (a remarkable, extraordinary account by the Labour MP’s childhood living in Notting Hill of the 1950s) some 3 years ago and loved it. Somewhat typically for me(!), I soon discovered that the ‘Winding Road’ was the third book of his memoirs – I’ll need to read book two out of sequence! He’s an excellent writer and it’s a wonderful, inspiring story of his journey from postman became Home Secretary. I might not have agreed with all his political decisions (eg. student tuition fees), but he comes across as an engaging, honest, funny man… the Prime Minister we never had. I really enjoyed this book… and have now acquired book two!
Paradise Lodge (Nina Stibbe): My second Nina Stibbe book… she’s a VERY funny writer! This is a novel, set in the 1970s, about a 15 year-old girl who is working at an old people’s home for 35p an hour instead of being at school (to pay for coffee and shampoo, luxuries her bankrupt mother can’t afford). She writes from the perspective of a 15 year-old girl and perfectly captures all the confusions, contradictions and anxieties. Stibbe has a gift for words and an imagination for the ridiculous which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Summer Game (Neville Cardus): This book was first published in 1928 (my copy was published in 1949). Neville Cardus was from an impoverished home background but, self-educated, he became the Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent from 1919-40. He’s regarded by many (me included – with the possible exception of John Arlott?) as the finest of all cricket writers. This book (that I picked up for £4 from a second-hand bookshelf at Gloucestershire’s Brightside Ground’s shop) provides a wonderful, evocative, almost romantic, series of descriptions of particular matches (usually featuring Lancashire), cricketing superstars of his day, schoolboy memories and former players - frequently making reference to the pre-war (WW1!)  ‘lost art’ of batting. Beautiful, poignant stuff… and it always seemed to be June and the sun was always shining brightly.
The Riders (Tim Winton): My second Tim Winton book (but the first novel of his I’ve read), shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1995. Australian Fred Scully decided to leave his homeland and make a new life for himself and his young family in unknown Ireland. He labours alone to make their dilapidated cottage habitable before driving to the airport to meet his wife and daughter. That’s when this desperate story really begins… I’m not going to say any more, except that I found it completely compelling. Brilliantly written (something I discovered reading his “Land’s Edge”)… I read the novel within three days and finishing it left me feeling utterly spent (in a good way!).

Monday, September 11, 2017

five years like this…

Well, somewhat remarkably, it’s been FIVE years since I started my ‘one day like this’ blog (setting myself a challenge of posting a daily drawing or photograph). When I first started, I had absolutely no idea of how long I might keep this daily ‘routine’ going… but it’s actually become very much a significant (albeit ‘normal’) part of my life. I still haven’t set myself any end date for the ‘challenge’… and don’t suppose I ever will. 
I started my blog very soon after returning from two months of volunteering with the Iona Community in 2012 (on that beautiful island of Iona, having met some wonderful people during the course of my stay and formed life-long friendships)… very much thanks to Ruth’s encouragement for me to send 40 postcards (which ended up being quick drawings) to various friends during the course of my stay.
Inevitably, the drawing quality has been somewhat variable (at best), but I’ve been quite pleased to have been able to produce the sketches relatively quickly – these days, the average time for each sketch has probably been 20-30 minutes (but sometimes they take 3 minutes and sometimes maybe an hour)… but I’ve really enjoyed the discipline the daily blog post has provided and the fact that I’m actually drawing on a regular basis. I’m very much a ‘project’ person and so my blog ticks a lot of boxes as far as retired life is concerned.
There’s part of me that thinks I should change from my current ‘project’… perhaps just post a daily Instagram drawing instead, for example? I did experiment with Instagram for a relatively brief period (posting stuff from my daily blog via Gramblr) but then the link packed up and I didn’t persevere. Let’s face it, I’m essentially a man of habit (with OCD tendencies!), so I suspect I’ll simply continue down my tried-and-tested road! Boringly, I quite like continuity!
I’ve produced a couple of Blurb books along the way… and perhaps I’ll produce another one in due course (maybe “2,000 days like this”? – I’m already over 1,800! – or maybe I should just wait until I’ve clocked 10,000 days!?).
PS: but it’s STILL costing me a small fortune in sketchbooks!
PPS: collection of twelve  ‘ordinary lines’ images ‘: sketches of small, incidental, ordinary ‘details’ within much bigger, equally ordinary, pictures.

 

Monday, September 04, 2017

half century…

Fifty years ago this week (well, maybe not quite this week… but pretty close), I started at Oxford School of Architecture. A handful of my close friends from that time (plus hangers-on!) will be duly getting together in Oxford to celebrate this momentous occasion.
It might get messy!
Fifty years ago, I was young. I was naïve. I was innocent(!?). I really didn’t know much about life or the world (when I compare myself to 18 year-olds of today).
Thanks to a random conversation with my Maths teacher, Gwyn Jones, I’d set my goals on becoming an architect (as opposed to a ‘draughtsman’, whatever that meant).
I’d passed my 11-plus and, much to my parents’ surprise (and staunch resistance), had gone through the ‘Remove-stream’ at Handsworth Grammar School and taken my O Level exams a year early.
Like many of my generation, no one in our family had previously gone to university. For both me and my family, it was an utterly different world. As far as my parents were concerned, I would be studying in Birmingham. I applied for a place on the architecture course at Aston, Leicester and Oxford. Much to my relief, Aston didn’t want me but Oxford offered me an interview (I can’t remember anything about Leicester apart from submitting an application).
As a very young 17 year-old, I duly went down to Oxford by train and was interviewed by the Principal – the wonderful, charismatic, unique Reginald Cave. My memory is that the interview lasted more than an hour… Reggie looked at my sketchbooks (yes, this was still a time when you needed to be able to draw if you wanted to be an architect!), asked me all sorts of mystifying questions and chatted about life and about my A Level subjects (Maths, Further Maths and Art). At the end, he offered me a place on the course… BUT, due to my young age, insisted that this be deferred for a year.
Being offered an unconditional place was absolute music to my ears and I readily accepted it - I’m pretty sure that my parents were a) similarly proud and b) at a complete loss as to how they were going to afford to make it all happen (we were very much a working class family)! 
You can imagine an equivalent situation/opportunity for a student today… So, what did I decide to do? Gap year? World travel? Somewhat ridiculously (when I now look back on things), I decided that I’d stay on for another year in the sixth form – that way, I could have another year playing for the school’s first eleven football and cricket teams. How utterly, utterly embarrassing, looking back… but despite the illogicality of the decision, my parents agreed.

A year on and I was preparing to make my way to Oxford. I needed to purchase, amongst other things, a drawing board, set square and T-square… plus drawing pens and pencils. I remember my uncle Len (who worked for the Water Board and knew about such things) telling which pens to buy (in the event, he was wrong and it took me another year or so to compile appropriate replacements!).
I distinctly remember being driven down to Oxford in our Ford Anglia (I had digs with a Mrs Brown in Headington), accompanied by my mother and our ‘auntie’ Ella. In the car’s small boot were my entire life’s possessions (or so it seemed): a medium-sized case, a portfolio and bag containing various pieces of equipment and books. Contrast this, for example, with when we took our daughter Hannah to Bath Spa University thirty years later… Moira and I had to drive her down in TWO cars, because she insisted that she NEEDED to have ALL her shoes with her (and, believe me, there were dozens!). Incidentally, I should point out that, amongst my small ‘array’ of clothes was a ‘sports jacket’… an item that my mother insisted I would need in order to attend the ‘Saturday dances’.
I kid you not.
My memories of enrolment day are relatively hazy. I remember getting my grant cheque and paying it into the bank (I was on a ‘full’ grant - £360 per year – and, amazingly, this really did suffice, just)(and without parental contributions). Of course, there were also no course fees! I think I remember getting stuck in a lift that first morning(?) and shaking hands with Steve Bowles (who was later to become my best man – he clearly thought that shaking hands was a very strange thing for students to do and has spent the past 50 years reminding me of this sad occasion).
But, hey man, this was the 1960s… flower power, drugs, Woodstock and much, much more.
On that first morning, I decided to walk into Oxford with one of my fellow architectural students, Rob Parkinson… he was public school-educated, had a posh accent and AMAZINGLY was walking around in his BARE feet (I know)! Boy, did I feel incredibly ‘un-cool’ (or whatever the word was in those days). The rest is history (obviously)…
You could buy a pint of mild in Old Headington for 1s 3d, but us hard-drinkers got into a routine of spending a whole £1 at the Turf pub on a Friday night (that’s 8 pints @ 2s 6d a pint).
Oh, yes, we knew how to live the high life!
Student life was very enjoyable, but tough… architecture students worked bloomin’ hard (even if it seemed to us that the rest of the student community spent most of their time in the common room – somewhat incredibly, we didn’t have a student bar in those early days!). Long hours and unremitting days… culminating in gruelling ‘crits’ when we had to explain and justify our schemes to our tutors (and, sometimes, to fellow students)… and then followed by two or three days of ‘rest and relaxation’ (drinking). Very competitive and great fun… but, crucially for me, it was all part of the process of ‘growing up’… and having the freedom to do this away from the confines of home was incredibly important. Those first three years on the course – and especially the first year – were gloriously life-transforming.

I readily accept that university is not for everyone (although it seems that’s what most young people are pushed into these days… wrongly, in my opinion), but just having time-off from family/home life gives young people the freedom to take their own decisions and make their own mistakes (which they will) and to learn about life, money, responsibility and relationships… still, hopefully, with the parental bail-out contingency if everything goes terribly wrong (in theory)!
As I say, for me, university WAS life-transforming and I’m just so grateful that I was given a chance to take advantage of the opportunity.
No doubt, the next few days will involve recalling various embarrassing stories and situations that we’ve spent the last 50 years trying to erase from our memories. Fortunately, there’ll also be LOTS of very fond memories too.
Photo: From a similar get together 5 years ago (very sadly, Christiane is no longer with us x).

 

Sunday, September 03, 2017

august-september 2017 books…

Land’s Edge (Tim Winton): Winton, born in 1960, is an award-winning Australian writer (as you probably already know). He lives on the Western Australian coast (where he also spent most of his childhood) and has a life-long fascination with all things coast-related. This short book is something of a “eulogy to a life lived from boyhood to manhood by and on the beach” (as ‘The Times’ critic accurately described it). As a coast-lover myself, I found it absolutely captivating. He has a beautiful, lyrical style of writing… this was one of those books one wants to read or dip into again and again. I’ve never read any of his other books, but will certainly be looking out for them in future (both fiction and non-fiction). A rather nice discovery!  
Uncle Fred In The Springtime (PG Wodehouse): You know exactly what you’re going to get with Wodehouse… a somewhat predictable, preposterous plot, several upper-class toffs, country houses, much hilarity and wonderful Wodehouse descriptions! All in all, a pleasant, relaxing summer reading (unless you absolutely can’t stand Wodehouse)!
Aung San Suu Kyi: A Portrait In Words And Pictures (Christophe Loviny): The first of two books about two brave, principled, political women (Caroline Lucas’s book follows!). Aung San Suu Kyi’s courage and personal sacrifices made in the struggle against Burma’s military regime has been extraordinary and inspiring. Celebrated journalist/photographer Christophe Loviny has been photographing Suu since 1996. The photographs are both beautiful and humbling and, together with Loviny’s words and insights from her family and friends, they are a powerful reminder of what this remarkable woman has been through and achieved. Archbishop Desmond Tutu described her thus: “This remarkable woman said she bore no one malice; she nursed no grudges against those who had treated her so unjustly; she had no bitterness; and she was ready to work for the healing of her motherland, which had suffered so grievously. In revealing this extraordinary magnanimity she was emulating Nelson Mandela… Without forgiveness there can be no future. Forgiveness is not a nebulous spiritual thing. It is practical politics”. An excellent, enlightening book.
Honourable Friends? (Caroline Lucas): I’ve read LOTS of political autobiographies, but I think this one (perhaps together with Chris Mullin’s?) is probably my all-time favourite. Published in 2015, it provides her ‘take’ on our dysfunctional parliamentary democracy and the “fight for change”. Unlike so many of other similar books, this isn’t a reflection on parliament from the perspective of a long political career. This is a view from a newby (and from a MP who isn’t from one of the main political parties) and highlights the tragic consequences of the first-past-the-post voting system… and parliament’s antiquated procedures; its malign voting system; the frequent deceit and harmful rhetoric; the two-party system which suffocates sensible debate; the bias towards big business over the individual; the awful influence of lobbyists… Since first being elected a MP in 2010, Lucas has been named Ethical Politician of the Year three times and won the 2014 MP of the Year award. It’s not at all surprising that this book has received enthusiastic endorsements from a wide range of commentators. What are surprising perhaps are the endorsements she has received from her fellow politicians, for example: “Our democracy is dysfunctional and our political system absurd on many levels. But in the mess that is modern politics, there are some MPs who stand out; people like Caroline Lucas whose commitment to improving our democracy and environment has never wavered, and who has been guided consistently by the same principles on which she was first elected to parliament” (Zac Goldsmith, Conservative). “For all those who want to understand better how Parliament works and how deficient it is in delivering the radical social and environmental agenda now so desperately needed, this is the book you need to read. Caroline Lucas has been phenomenally active in the House and outside, almost a party alone in her own right, and has blown a refreshing wind through politics on almost all the crucial issues facing Britain today, always pointing with a critical eye to the transformation needed. She is an inspiration to us all” (Michael Meacher, Labour). “By sheer force of personality, Parliamentary insistence and dogged commitment to the chamber, the committees, the procedures of the house, she has advanced her causes. It shows that it can be done. She has made one hell of an impact in the House” (John Bercow, Speaker). It’s a brilliant (albeit depressing), stimulating and challenging book.
True To Life: British Realist Paintings In The 1920s+1930s (Patrick Elliott+Sacha Llewellyn): I treated myself to this from the Arnolfini bookshop (having originally been made aware of the exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh some weeks ago via the BBC). For me, this is a favourite, fascinating, oft-forgotten era of British painting (but by no means all the work of this period, I hasten to add!). Typical favourite artists of this time include: Joseph Southall, Harold Williamson, Dod Procter, Gladys Hynes, Stanley Spencer, Lancelot Glasson, Hilda Carline, Fortunino Matania, Stanislaus S Longley, James Cowie, John Downton, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, Colin Gill, Laura Knight, Clifford Rowe and James Walker Tucker. A beautiful book.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

vice versa…

Moira and I went to Stratford to see the RSC’s “Vice Versa” at the Swan Theatre on Thursday evening. Written by Phil Porter and directed by Janice Honeyman, this ‘Roman Comedy’ was inspired by the plays of Plautus (Roman playwright who died in 185BC… and who’d actually based his plays on Greek plays, ideas and stories… as if you didn’t already know!). The RSC programme also provides the play’s alternative title: “The decline and fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter and Terence the monkey”.
You get the general idea… it’s a comedy!
We love going to Stratford and we love the RSC… but one other reason for making the trip was that the play also featured Felix Hayes (Hannah’s husband - but you knew that, didn’t you?) in the role of General Braggadocio. The RSC programme describes the action thus: “General Braggadocio is in no doubt that everyone adores him – especially the local women of Rome. His servants, Feclus, Omnivorous and the savvy Dexter, are at his mercy and either flatter, fear or avoid him. The truth is, Braggadocio lives up to his name. Unable to bear life enslaved, Dexter has a plan…”.

It’s all a ridiculous, over-the-top farce (featuring almost predictable comic situations, double entendres, stock characters, thwarted lovers and identical twins)… but wonderfully played by a really excellent cast. Sophia Nomvete, as Dexter, and Felix, as General B, are both brilliant. I may be biased (who me?), but one theatre critic described his performance in the following terms: Felix Hayes as the cocksure but crackpot General Braggadocio starts off with all the dials on ten and never lets up. Red-faced and on the point of meltdown throughout, he blusters and bullies but still has time to ridicule himself. It’s a case of excellent material meeting a superb characterisation”.
I think that’s just about spot on.
Despite all its humour, the play also contains relevant themes of chauvinism, freedom from oppression, and migration… and, indeed, there are various direct and indirect references to a certain US President (indeed, the programme includes a large colour photograph of the current President, smiling gormlessly whilst being kissed by his wife and daughter)!
In the programme, the writer Phil Porter beautifully describes it thus: “… the aspect that should be most recognisable in our world today is a certain strand of masculine, bullying behaviour, and the association of this behaviour with power”.
The sad thing is that Mr Trump, the pathetic egotist, would probably be delighted to know he’d made it into a programme of the Royal Shakespeare Company!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

final portrait…

I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Stanley Tucci’s film “Final Portrait”. It’s based on American art critic James Lord’s memoir of how Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) invited him to sit for him in Paris in 1964. Armie Hammer plays the part of young James Lord and Geoffrey Rush is simply superb as Giacometti (perhaps the film should have carried a warning along the lines of “several hundred cigarettes were consumed in the making of this film”!).
It recounts the story of how what had originally been ”sitting for a portrait for a few hours” ended up extending into days and then weeks (with Lord, flattered by the attention, being forced to cancel and rearrange a series of flights back home) as Giacometti is distracted by ruminations on art, death, money (not to mention his lover)… regularly being frustrated and dissatisfied by what he was producing (and frequently starting all over again).
It’s a comedy drama – sometimes quite touching – about an offbeat friendship amid the utter chaos of the artistic, creative process. I particularly loved the stark visual contrast between with the monochrome nature of the studio (which reminded me of Barbara Hepworth’s studio in St Ives) and the colour of Parisian life.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I REALLY enjoyed the film… it’s worth seeing for Geoffrey Rush’s mesmerising performance alone.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

july-august 2017 books

Enter A Fox (Simon Gray): To be honest, although I had come across Simon Gray (he died in 2008, aged 71), I hadn’t previously actually seen any of his plays (as far as I can recall) or read any of his memoirs. The cover of this short book, first published in 2001, includes various enthusiastic endorsements, such as: “The second funniest book I have read this year is The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray. (For the record, the funniest is Enter a Fox” by the same author” or “Has a man ever written such sustained and hilarious diatribes against himself?”. Well, sorry, but I was somewhat disappointed and left underwhelmed. To my mind, the book (written apparently in an attempt “to learn to write fluently” on his new Apple) is no more than a stream of consciousness rant by a bit of a grumpy old man (I should know – being both old and prone to ranting!). Entertaining at times but, if this is a recipe for making money, I should be sending my facebook rants to a publisher!
The Terracotta Dog (Andrea Camilleri): I really do like these Inspector Montalbano mysteries. It’s taken me a little time to get into them (Montalbano, with his “sardonic, engaging take on Sicilian small-town life and his genius for deciphering the most enigmatic of crimes”), but I’m now a big fan. The stories and characters are always entertaining, funny and irreverent; they all involve references to food, beautiful women, the ‘Mafioso’… and Montalbano relaxing on his veranda overlooking the sea and going for long swims… The crimes are always the focus but, for me, the characters, humour and colour of southern Italy are the crucial keys.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (Raymond Carver): A book of short stories, first published in the USA in 1976 (1993 in the UK). I’d not previously read any Carver books (and I wasn’t aware that he was particularly noted for his short stories). All the stories are set in America and are almost banal in content and seemingly full of insignificant detail. I frequently found them frustratingly open-ended and inconclusive – but that is clearly Carver’s style. Storylines are often feature the struggling relationships and frustrated dreams of ‘ordinary people’ (and plenty of alcohol, cigarettes and violence!). After I’d finished the book, I read that Carver (who died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 50) that he was born into a poverty-stricken family at the tail-end of the Depression and was the son of a violent alcoholic... and that (according to Wikipedia) he married at 19, started a series of menial jobs and his own career of 'full-time drinking as a serious pursuit', a career that would eventually kill him. It seems that he constantly struggled to support his wife and family, before enrolling in a writing programme in 1958 (which he ultimately saw as a turning point in his life). His stories clearly reflect his own experiences. I enjoyed the book – somewhat frustrating (and just a little disturbing at times), but compelling nevertheless.
The Goldfish Boy (Lisa Thompson): Essentially, this is a children’s book (albeit 400 pages long). It’s about a 12 year-old boy with OCD… who, amongst other things, is obsessed with clean surfaces and making notes about his neighbours (spied through his bedroom window). But it’s also a mysterious story about a missing toddler… and finding friendship when you’re lonely. It’s a very beautiful book (poignant, joyful and funny) and very beautifully written… I loved it.

On The Danger Line (Georges Simenon): First published in 1944, this is a volume of two short novels (‘Home Town’ and ‘The Green Thermos’) which essentially relate to criminal psychology. In ‘Home Town’, after an extended absence, travelling abroad and living on the fringes of the underworld, a man returns to the place of his early years. He’s a controlling bully and fraudster. He tells lies to impress his family and friends. He’s a nasty piece of work! The second book, ‘The Green Thermos’, tells the story of an anarchist in Paris who tries to prevent a bomb plot – in spite of police pursuit and dangers from those he has turned against. Both stories are intriguing and yet, to my mind, not totally convincing. Simenon was clearly one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century – apparently “capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day”! I reckon he would have rattled these off by Friday lunchtime! (PS: I’ve STILL to read ANY of his Maigret novels!).

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

drawing group exhibitions

If you live in or around Bristol, then I strongly recommend that you check out these two exhibitions at the historic city churches of St John on the Wall (in the crypt) in Broad Street and Saint Stephen’s in St Stephen’s Street:

St John on the Wall:
Wednesday 30 August-Monday 11 September (11.30am-2pm, Monday- Sunday). Preview/Open evening: Thursday 31 August 5.30-7.30pm.

Saint Stephen’s:
Thursday 7 September-Wednesday 20 September (9.30am-3.30pm Monday-Friday). Preview/Open evening: Thursday 7 September 5.30-7.30pm.

They will be exhibitions with a difference…
For the past 16 months or so, I’ve belonged to an amazing Drawing Group, which meets from 10.30am-12.30pm every Tuesday in either Saint Stephen’s Church (first Tuesdays in the month) or St John-on-the-Wall Church in Broad St (all other Tuesdays) to draw or write poetry or take photographs.
It’s a very lovely, welcoming and diverse collection of individuals with a wide range of artistic abilities, experience and backgrounds… led by the brilliant Charlotte and Alice Pain, wonderful artists in their own right. The exhibitions consist of sketches that group members have undertaken over the past year (we had a similar exhibition in St John’s Crypt last July/August). Some people have some drawing or photographic experience behind them (but, perhaps, have let the habit lapse?). Others have hardly previously drawn at all. For some, it’s an opportunity to experiment. For some, the group’s principal benefit is the group’s sociability.
Anyone/everyone is welcome to join and I’ve been incredibly impressed by the warmth of the welcome and its non-judgemental approach to art and creativity.
This is what Charlotte has previously written about the project and the group:
“This project is about helping the public connect to buildings and locations. It is about breathing a new breath of life into churches, bringing community back within them and exploring their uses. It’s about getting people drawing and making. It’s about a belief that creativity can help us to strengthen our voices, nurture our mental health and help us connect to each other.

From a core group of people who rarely miss a session to random visitors to the city who have long left Bristol behind them, each drawing is a moment in the life of St John’s/Saint and of the people who have walked through the doors. With the support and open-mindedness of The Churches Conservation Trust the project has flourished.
We are a diverse group of people who have developed a passion for St John’s/ Stephen’s and have spent many hours drawing, photographing and admiring these special buildings. This is not only a celebration, but an invitation to the rest of Bristol to join us”.
As you might realise, Charlotte and Alice are a bit special!

I don’t want to embarrass people by highlighting their individual talents or what they bring to the group but, hopefully, this will provide a flavour: Mike has produced more than 100 sketches over the past couple of years and his friendliness encapsulates all that the group stands for; Brian is another of those gentle, generous, welcoming people and his photographs of the churches are an inspiration; David is a simply brilliant artist (especially his watercolours!) who can draw beautifully and chat amusingly at the same time(!); Betty has been something of a revelation for me – every week, she produces her simple, intricate, beautiful sketches; Jonathan loves coming to the group – he’s industrious, friendly and with a passion for art; Jaki simply draws beautifully… and then there’s also Christine, Chris, Frances, Anne-Marie, DaveP, CharlotteM, DaveW, Justin, Jeff, Jean, Alex, Helen, Marc, Aran, Ed etc etc.     
Membership of the group is completely free so, if you fancy having an excuse to do some drawing, then why not give it a try?
Please take an opportunity to pop into the exhibitions to see examples of the work the group has produced over the past twelve months (and also to see these two beautiful Grade I Listed churches).

Photo: Artwork set out on the floor of the Crypt at St John's... selecting from the huge wealth of work produced over the past year wasn't easy!!