Sunday, December 03, 2017

november-december 2017 books…

The Novel Habits Of Happiness (Alexander McCall Smith): Apparently, we’ve got 11 McCall Smith books on our shelves (I’ve just checked!), but this is the first one I’ve read (he’s one of Moira’s favourite authors). This one is “an Isabel Dalhousie novel”. For the first few chapters, I found myself asking “what’s the point of all this?” – it’s about a well-off, middle-class philosopher, living in Edinburgh, with a perfect husband and a well-behaved, equally perfect 3 year-old son… living an ideal, well-balanced life. But, during the course of the book (which raises questions of reincarnation, the nature of grief, squabbling academics… and more), I became drawn in and fascinated by the intelligent, moral curiosity and kindness of Dalhousie’s world.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (JK Rowling): This is my first Harry Potter book (yes, really)… I’m reading it with the enthusiastic encouragement of certain grandchildren - who have long expressed sympathetic incredulity at what they see as a huge deficiency in my knowledge/life experiences! Well, I have to say that I think Joanne Rowling is a bit of a genius… incredibly inventive, funny, clever and, clearly, with a wonderful ability to conjure up memorable characters and thriller-like stories. I think she might do rather well! I enjoyed it a lot.
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (JK Rowling): My second Harry Potter book (see above!)… and another very good read. It even featured an old Ford Anglia car – owned by the Weasleys - identical to the very car in which I passed my driving test (we had a two-tone blue one with an intriguing Monte Carlo Rally sticker on one of the back windows!).
The Potter’s Hand (AN Wilson): Yes, I know… a lot of Potter-related stuff! This is a novel about Josiah Wedgewood and his family and, I’m afraid, I really do dislike this kind of historical fiction… with lots of made-up characters, ridiculous invented scenarios and imaginary conversations. Yes, it tells of a remarkable time in this country’s history – the industrial revolution, the scientific inventions, the coming together of men with very different skills that were to transform so many lives… but I would much have preferred to have read a history on the subject or a biography, rather than this long (over 500 pages) tale. Wilson (whose father was in fact Managing Director of Josiah Wedgewood and Sons) is obviously a gifted writer… but I’m afraid this book was definitely not for me (and don’t get me started about the totally made-up story of Blue Squirrel, a Cherokee woman who fell in love with Wedgewood’s nephew and who just happened to be an exquisite potter in her own right and who came over to England and played a leading role in the creation of Wedgewood’s ‘Portland Vase’ and married Wedgewood’s boatman on the canals… all utter tosh!!).  
Signs For Lost Children (Sarah Moss): This is the first of Moss’s novels I’ve read (I’d previously read “Names For The Sea” – a memoir about her time with her family spent in Iceland – a lovely book). This is a follow up to her novel “Bodies Of Light” – which, of course, I haven’t yet read (rather typical of my recent ‘out-of-order’ reading experiences!). It’s set in the 1880s and tells the story of a couple (Ally and Tom) embarking on married life in a white cottage in Cornwall… Idyllic, but Tom is soon given an opportunity to build lighthouses in Japan (an opening he feels he can’t turn down) and, meanwhile, Ally, a doctor, takes up a post at Truro Asylum. It’s only for six months (“letters only take a few weeks now”), but the pair have known each other barely longer than that. It’s a story of individual exploration for both of them but, with separation comes, new challenges, opportunities and realisations. It’s a great shame that I hadn’t initially appreciated that the first book even existed(!) and therefore feel that I missed out on knowing more about Ally’s background… although perhaps the lack of her background story meant that I was able to take both their lives more at face value? It’s a beautiful, powerful, sad-but-hopeful book which highlights (amongst other things) the role of women within the family – I thoroughly recommend it (and wonderfully, elegantly written). I now need to read the first book!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

film stars don’t die in liverpool…

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. I didn’t have any real expectations of seeing a particularly good film… just that one or two friends/family members had mentioned that they’d heard ‘good reports’.
Well, I was wrong... I thought it was an absolutely lovely film.
Essentially, it’s a you-couldn’t-make-it-up true romance set in Los Angeles, New York, London and Liverpool in the late 1970s and early 80s and based on Peter Turner’s own memoir. It’s a remarkable, sweet, sad love story starring Annette Bening (as legendary Hollywood star Gloria Grahame) and Jamie Bell (as Turner).

As an unknown, struggling young actor in the late 70s, Turner met and fell in love with Grahame who, incredibly, was living in the same north London boarding house. With her Hollywood career seemingly behind her, she was looking for stage work in Britain and suppressing worries about her health. Despite their age difference (Turner was 28 years younger than Grahame – in fact, half her age), the pair had an on-off affair. Sometime after their fling ended, Turner received a phonecall to say that Grahame had collapsed in her dressing room while on tour in the UK, and had asked to come and stay with Peter and his family in Liverpool, convinced that she could recover there.
It would be unfair to go into further detail, so I’ll just say that it’s a tremendously warm and tender love story. I may be a soft/easy touch as far as these things are concerned, but it ticked an awful lot of boxes as far as I was concerned – pathos, humour, passion and exceptional acting. Both Bening and Bell were simply brilliant (and I really mean that!) – Oscars for each of them perhaps?
The soundtrack of music from that era also works perfectly – together with an apt new song (given recent Hollywood revelations/accusations?) by Elvis Costello entitled “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way”.
All in all, one of the very best films I’ve seen this year.
You DEFINITELY need to see it!

Monday, November 27, 2017

modigliani exhibition at tate modern…

I rather like the work of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920).
As those who know me will realise… this is a bit of an understatement. I’ve had the exhibition dates in my diary since the start of the year and so it was a ‘bit special’ for Moira and me to make it to Tate Modern last Friday (just a day after the exhibition opened).
The exhibition certainly lived up to my expectations and there was something very special to be able to view over 100 of his well-known portraits (not forgetting the single landscape!).
For me, it perfectly captured the creative, bohemian atmosphere of Paris in those early years of the twentieth century… and, in particular, the vibrant arts ‘scene’ of Montmartre (Modigliani arrived there from Italy in 1906).  My only regret was in failing to book a virtual reality exploration of the artist’s life and the environment that inspired his work.
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Modigliani’s work more or less in date sequence… and, in particular, how he concentrated for some two years on producing superb sculpted stone heads (six were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1912 – the only substantial exhibition of his sculpture during his lifetime)… seeing them ‘up close’ was quite a revelation. Fascinating how their elongated form (and the numerous accompanying sketches he produced at this time) seemed to influence much of his subsequent portraits over the remaining eight years of his life.
Actually, I was wrong when I said “my only regret” about the exhibition… somewhat inevitably, perhaps six of my very favourite Modigliani portraits were missing (eg. a particular portrait of Zborowski; Portrait of Woman in Hat; Bride and Groom; Gypsy Woman with Baby; Madame Kisling; Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie)… but, hey, the exhibition DID have a beautiful oil painting that I’d not previously seen (Nude Study, 1908) – either in books or via the internet.
I really did enjoy this exhibition and, as a result, will be continuing to read about Modigliani’s life and work over the coming the weeks and months.
Photo: Exhibition entrance, Tate Modern
PS: Very interesting to see the Edgar Degas (1834-1917) exhibition at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge two days later... born in France and spent most of life working in Paris.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

touching turner’s treasures (again)…

You may recall me singing the praises of the Ashmolean Museum’s brilliant Print Room in Oxford at various times in the past… I’ve previously viewed works by Michelangelo, Raphael and Turner there.
Well, I made another trip there yesterday to see some more of Turner’s watercolours. The museum is fortunate to have been bequeathed large quantities of artwork from John Ruskin in 1861. I was originally going to look at the handful of watercolour sketches Turner did of Oxford but, having chatted to the wonderfully enthusiastic and efficient Katherine (I’d met her on my previous visits in 2011 and 2012), I decided, instead, to look at some of the watercolours he did in France in 1830 – on the Loire, in Orleans, Tours, Blois and the like – a total of 22 watercolours in total.
I spent very nearly an hour poring over these amazing pieces of work. Each of them quite small – none bigger than say 15x20cm – apparently undertaken quite quickly and yet containing amazing amounts of detail (Turner’s ability to ‘imply’ detail through his technical mastery is simply breath-taking at times). I’ve merely dabbled in watercolours in the past (enjoyably, but pretty unsuccessfully!), but taking time to study these works by Turner left me completely in awe.
A huge privilege and another truly magical, memorable experience.
Photo: Just two of the watercolours I actually handled yesterday: Amboise (left) and ‘The Bridge and Chateau at Amboise’ (right).
PS: The Print Room at the Ashmolean is open to “members of the public, students and visiting scholars alike for the study and enjoyment of drawings and prints from the collection” (quote from the print room brochure)… and it’s free.
PPS: Turner’s output makes my ‘One Day Like This’ project (posting a daily drawing/photograph on my blog) positively puny in comparison (not that I could possibly compare myself to HIM!). Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve posted some 950 sketches. Turner left over 19,000 sketches and watercolours in the “Turner Bequest”, hundreds of finished watercolours and well over 500 oil paintings. How on earth did he find the time (he virtually produced a ‘sketch’ EVERY day of his adult life – and this doesn’t allow for his “finished” paintings!)? Blimey.

Friday, November 17, 2017

the florida project…

Went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project”… about life ‘in America’s underbelly’ (as the Watershed’s blurb puts it). It tells the story of a spirited six year-old, her friends and single mother who ‘live’ in a depressing, garishly-painted, lilac motel outside Disney World in Orlando (one of many long-stay welfare places for transients and mortgage defaulters). The mother – impressively played by Bria Vinaite (a heavily tattooed first-time actor who Baker apparently found through Instagram, with a business selling weed-themed merchandise!) – spends most of the film swearing incessantly and desperately trying to come up with her weekly rent through a mixture of hawking Gucci knockoff perfumes to tourists and selling her body. Her life, it seems, is all about delusion and fear. Her six year-old daughter, Moonee – astonishingly played by Brooklynn Prince – is a feral child (alongside her fellow friends), able to do whatever she likes and go wherever she wants… and she too swears like a trooper throughout the film. Prince is unforced, humourous and entirely natural… and, for her, living next to a theme park, probably feels a little like living in paradise.
It’s wonderful. It’s funny. It’s powerfully impressive. It’s beautifully photographed… but it’s also very depressing and a sad reflection of the lives of some of those who find themselves on the very margins of society.
That’s not to say that everyone in such situations lives their lives in such a manner.

I knew I’d find the film depressing at times. I knew I’d spend much of the film wanting the ‘grown-ups’ to have some regard as to how and where their offspring were spending their days (it was the summer vacation). I knew I’d be amused at the antics of the children but, at the same time, horrified by their lack of respect and by their abusive, rude behaviour.
Both mother and daughter use the F-word incessantly. You just know right from the start that the family isn’t going to win the lottery and live happily ever after… and yet there is real affection between these two characters – they really do love each other.
You get a very strong feeling that the film is all about seeing things from a child’s point of view and, apparently, Baker insisted that the camera is at child’s eye level when children are being filmed… and this is very effective.
The film is fiction and yet you just know that such situations are being played out in countries throughout the world… and, tragically, you just KNOW that the daughter will inherit the mistakes and attitudes of the mother… and that her future is almost pre-destined. In such circumstances, sadly, life is often self-perpetuating.
A brilliant, very impressive, warm, compassionate - albeit somewhat depressing - film.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

up down man…

Tonight, Moira and I went to the Tobacco Factory Theatre to see Brendan Murray’s “Up Down Man” (the sequel to “Up Down Boy”) – a play about growing up and moving on… through the eyes of a twenty-nine year-old man, named Matty Butler (who has Down’s Syndrome) and his family.
Yesterday, I spent over an hour drawing students from the circus school, Circomedia as they practised handstands, cartwheels, back-flips and the like… and I was mesmerised by their sheer grace and elegance of movement.
Well, tonight was no different.
Nathan Bessell (who plays Matty Butler) is at the centre of this play at all times, and communicates so much through his movement and expression… and quite, quite beautifully.

“This is who I am – my name is Matty Butler. I’m not a child, I’m twenty nine years old. I like foxes, badgers, dancing, eating dinner, going bowling, Eastenders, dancing and foxes. I’d like to have a friend. Maybe Angel from Buffy. And we’d go on holiday and live together and have dinner and go dancing. I’m not a child you see. I’m twenty nine years old. My name is Matty Butler. This is who I am. And I like foxes.”

It’s a very powerful, yet simple, story.
In the play, Matty’s mother died six weeks ago. The family are trying to come terms with her death. People with Down’s Syndrome are now statistically living longer, but what happens when they outlive their parents? The job of a parent (especially a parent of a child who has a learning disability) is to prepare their child for a time when they will fly the nest. It’s a delicate balance… providing protection from some of the more difficult and painful parts of life, but also trusting them (where possible) with a level of independence… which might in turn lead them to getting hurt.
As you might imagine, as a grandparent of 11 year-old Mikey - who has Down’s Syndrome (and also autism) – this play is incredibly close to my heart.
The supporting cast are excellent: Arran Glass (Mr Fox/Musician); Emily Bowker (Darcy Butler, sister); Joe Hall (Martin Butler, father); Heather Williams (Odette Butler, mother); and Bryan Thomas (Jim).
It’s poignant and it’s sad, but it’s also funny, hugely hopeful and uplifting.
I thought it was just wonderful.
PS: It runs until Saturday 18 November… if you live in the Bristol area, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

ricky ross at st george’s…

When I grow up, I’m going to be a singer/songwriter and play a grand piano… just like Ricky Ross.
Last night, Chris and I went to see/hear Ross perform his songs, unaccompanied, for an hour and a half – just him and St George’s wonderful grand piano. Sadly, I can’t play ANY instrument and I certainly can’t sing very well… although I DO remember composing some stunning songs (believe me, they were wonderful!) whilst rocking grandchildren to sleep at various times. Unfortunately, they’re now lost in the mists of time.
The concert was simply brilliant.
I just love the sound of a single voice and a piano together. I’ve been listening to a lot of Ross’s music over recent weeks (his “Short Stories, Volume 1” is simply brilliant in my view) and they’ve provided a perfect musical accompaniment and resonance for the various things I’ve been undertaking recently… and, perhaps, also for my day-to-day reflections on stuff that is happening in the wider world.
Last night was a perfect combination: profound, evocative, sad, uplifting, powerful… and hauntingly beautiful melodies.
A really wonderful concert (best of the year?).
Photo: photograph from last night’s concert.

Monday, November 06, 2017

tax avoidance, off-shore tax havens and the like…

Today, in newspapers and websites, we read about a huge leak of financial documents which reveal how the powerful and ultra-wealthy (including the Queen’s private estate) secretly invest vast amounts of cash in offshore tax havens… Many of the stories focus on how politicians, multinationals, celebrities and ‘high-net-worth’ individuals (including people who are significant donors to political parties) use complex structures of trusts, foundations and shell companies to protect their cash from tax officials or hide their dealings behind a veil of secrecy.
Oh, what a surprise!
And, of course, to complicate things a little further, we keep hearing reports that our own government is considering making the UK some form of tax haven to offset lost revenue in the light of Brexit. Last March, for example, it appeared that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were warning the EU that (according to a report in the Guardian) if they don’t like the Brexit deal, they could turn the UK into a tax haven”. Not In My Name!

The trouble is (and, clearly, I’m no financial expert)(slight understatement!) that, over the years, we’ve consistently been told (by both major UK political parties) that there would crackdowns on tax avoidance, offshore tax havens, unacceptable banking practices and the like… and, consistently, over the years, nothing really seems to change.
At the end of last month, for example (I posted a link via facebook at the time), there was a report that five offshore PFI companies (Private Finance Initiatives) had paid little or no corporation tax over the past five years, despite making profits of nearly £2billion. Education and health projects, including schools and hospitals, account for two-thirds of the purchases by offshore companies. So, while our taxes are paying for our schools and hospitals, the PFI companies are clearly profiting and paying no UK tax!
I’ve just spent a few minutes checking back on finance-related stuff that I’d posted on this blog and (I won’t bore you with the details) and this is something I’ve consistently moaned about. For example:
Meltdown (Sep 2008); Financial speculation (Oct 2008); Poverty (Oct 2008); Financial crisis (Nov 2011); Greed (Nov 2011); Public Sector (Nov 2011); Bankers (Feb 2012); Greed, incompetence+dishonesty (June 2012); Banks (July 2012); Libor (July 2012); Protest (Jun 2013)… I could go on (and on!).
Nothing ever seems to change.
It all seems to be about greed; about influence; about the haves and the have-nots; about ‘clever’ people doing things with their money to make yet more money (and often, completely legally); about vested interest; about political lobbyists; about ‘me’ not ‘us’; about political ideology.
I’m about to read a book by my great friend, Ian Adams, entitled “Some Small Heaven(Seeking Light in Winter)”… it’s a book for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. The introduction talks about the winter testing our hope and our resolve. He talks about ‘feeling’ the encroaching darkness of winter and about his stability being tested… and about yearning for a light to come. In a strange way, it seems to be a metaphor for how I’m feeling when I come across things like this depressing report of leaked financial documents.
I need to seek the light amongst this darkness… but I think it’ll continue to be a very difficult and depressing journey.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

BOX-E, gaol ferry steps…

For the second time, Moira and I enjoyed a wonderful meal at BOX-E. The restaurant is housed in two shipping containers that form part of the thriving Cargo development at Gaol Ferry Steps in Bristol.
It’s quite small… they have just 14 seats in their restaurant, but it’s an amazing place – run by two quite exceptional people (Tess and Elliott)… booking is essential.
The Guardian’s Jay Rayner is also clearly also a fan: “It’s the sense of people doing the thing they love their way, by finding an environment in which to make it work”. Chef Elliott Lidstone was formerly head chef of the Michelin-starred L'Ortolan… and then spent four years at the Empress in East London, earning himself two AA rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand… you do.
I really can’t commend the food (and the service and the wine!) highly enough.
If you’ve already been there, then you’ll know… but if you haven’t, then you need to do it!
Photo: from the BOX-E website (check out the website – that’s very good too!)
PS: Our wedding anniversary is 30 December and, with all the food and general indulgence of the Christmas period, going out for a celebratory anniversary meal never seems particularly appropriate. As a result, over the years, we’ve tended to mark the ‘start’ of our time together – 31 October 1969. So last night’s meal was in grateful celebration of having been together for 48 years (cripes!).
PPS: Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite a case of “all we need is music, sweet music… there’ll be music everywhere… they’ll be swinging, swaying, records playing… dancing in the street” on our way home. Moira twisted her ankle coming downstairs from the restaurant!

Friday, November 03, 2017

october-november 2017 books…

SF Barnes – Master Bowler (Leslie Duckworth): This is the second time I’ve read this book (published in 1967) – I bought it in a jumble sale several years ago. Syd Barnes, professional cricketer, was born in Smethwick in 1873 (just a few miles from where I was brought up in Handsworth) and is regarded as one of the greatest ever bowlers. In my youth, I think one of the things that attracted me to following his cricket career was the fact that he had been a leg-spin bowler – or so I thought (I was a leg-spinner too, hence my interest). I subsequently discovered that although, yes, he bowled leg-breaks… he also bowled off-breaks, could swing the ball both ways and actually varied his pace from medium to fast-medium (so, not like my gentle slow stuff at all!). Despite his very long career as a top class player – he played his last competitive game aged 67(!) – he only spent some two seasons in first class cricket (for Warwickshire and Lancashire). He preferred to make his living playing league and minor counties cricket. He did however also play 27 Test Matches for England between 1901 and 1914, taking 189 wickets at a staggering 16.43 runs each (including a world series record of 49 wickets against South Africa in his final Test series in 1913-14). In league and club cricket, between 1895 and 1940, he took a mere 4,069 wickets at an incredible 6.08 runs each! Some people accused him of being “grim and unresponsive” but Duckworth’s book makes it very clear that, despite his little idiosyncrasies, he was well-liked by his fellow players and the public alike. A fascinating book (if you’re a cricket-lover!).
Eating Pomegranates (Sarah Gabriel): This is a remarkable book (first published in 2009 and a chance purchase at Bristol’s beloved Last Bookshop). Sarah Gabriel was a teenager when her mother died from ovarian cancer (aged just 42). When Gabriel was 44, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned that she had inherited a rare and deadly genetic mutation (BRCA1 gene – responsible for the death of her mother and countless female ancestors). Within a year, Gabriel had lost her breasts, her ovaries, her hair and was fighting for her life… and fighting for a way to prevent her two daughters, aged five and three, from growing up motherless. The book is a memoir of mothers, daughters and genes. It’s a beautiful, but often raw and angry book. Sometimes resentful (“why me?”); sometimes making harsh comments about acquaintances and family members… and about people’s insensitive comments; missing her own mother (and her mother’s presence during Gabriel’s illness); needing to speak about her mother and to understand the final days of her mother’s illness. But, crucially, it’s an honest, brave and frank book. As far as I know, Gabriel is still alive (very good news!). Beautifully written. Heartrending. As a mere male, I felt almost privileged to read it. Certainly one of the most powerful books I’ve read all year.  
Things The Grandchildren Should Know (Mark Oliver Everett): Another book picked up at the Last Bookshop. I’m not ‘into’ books by musicians but, as you know, I do like a good autobiography. Well, sadly, this isn’t a particularly good autobiography. I’m not a huge Eels music fan, but I do like some of Everett’s work. The book (published in 2008) tells of his difficult home life; how he survived the deaths of his entire family: and how he managed to make something of his life. Frankly, I found it all a bit pretentious – as an example, the penultimate chapter contains the following somewhat pathetic sentence: “Just living another day has always felt like some sort of success to me”… well, good for you! Actually, one of the reasons I bought the book in the first place was this description inside the back cover: “Mark Oliver Everett is an ordained minister and alternative rock star”… I didn’t know he was an ordained minister and so was intrigued how this had come about. Strangely, although the book contains various comments about not believing in God, there’s absolutely nothing about his life as a minister!
The Greatcoat (Helen Dunmore): This is a ghost story (which, somewhat ironically, I finished on Halloween!)(it also happened to be published by Hammer!), set in 1952, about a young woman – recently married to a country GP – who one night, when her husband is on call, is startled by the face of a young RAF pilot at the window. There used to be a near-by airfield used in the war… where a maimed Lancaster bomber crashed on landing, killing all on board… I won’t bother to go into details, but you get the general idea! Having previously read one of Dunmore’s books (and enjoyed it), I was intrigued at the prospect of reading another. I was sadly disappointed.
Cardus On Cricket (Neville Cardus): Sorry, another cricket book! This book was first published in 1949 (Rupert Hart-Davis’s introduction was written a month before my birth!) – my copy was published in 1951. It’s a compilation of Cardus’s writings from between 1922 and 1937 – indeed, a few from “Days In The Sun” and “The Summer Game”, which I’ve recently read (and reviewed). Hart-Davis was perhaps correct in saying that Cardus’s early pieces seemed to him “flowery and overwritten” but, nevertheless, I find them both wonderfully evocative and illuminating. I particularly liked his piece about Don Bradman, written in 1930 (when Bradman was 22): “And now that a Bradman has come to us, capable of 300 runs in a single day of a Test match, some of us are calling him a Lindrum of cricket. It is a hard world to please. Perhaps by making a duck some day, Bradman will oblige those of his critics who believe with Lord Bacon that there should always be some strangeness, something unexpected, mingled with art and beauty”. Of course (as all cricket-lovers will know), Bradman DID score a duck in his final Test match innings, at the Oval in 1948 -  if he’d scored a mere 4 runs in that innings, he would have finished with Test average of over 100 runs per innings (as it was, he finished on 99.94). Another very enjoyable read.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

ligeti quartet at saint stephen’s…

A quite extraordinary evening yesterday at Saint Stephen’s, Bristol… a concert by a string quartet who are at the forefront of modern and contemporary music since their formation in 2010. I hadn’t come across their music before last night, but was aware (from the Ligeti Quartet website) that they’d “established a reputation as one of the UK’s leading ensembles, breaking new ground through innovative programming and championing of today’s most exciting composers and artists”.
They didn’t disappoint!
The evening featured works from JS Bach (with arrangements by Harrison Birtwistle, born 1934); Sofia Gubaidulina, b 1931; Igor Stravinsky; Anton Webern; Stef Conner, b 1983; Arthur Keegan-Bole, b 1986; George Nicholson, b 1949; and Georg Friedrich Haas, b 1953.

I have to say, they were pretty amazing – stunning musicianship (both individually and collectively), avant-garde, edgy, passionate… playing complex works which required huge trust between each musician and yet demanded confidence and flair to pull it off effectively.
The Quartet have played landmark venues across the world, including Carnegie Hall, Curtis Institute, Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Barbican Hall and Kings Place (as well as a fishing boat, theatres and pubs!).
What I particularly love about this young group of highly-talented musicians is that they are themselves passionate about supporting emerging composers and taking new music to diverse audiences – they’ve commissioned many new works and have collaborated with artists from all types of musical backgrounds.

The concert’s final piece (String Quartet no.2, 1998 by Haas) was particularly remarkable. The programme notes (which I didn’t read fully until after the performance) give an indication of the composer’s intentions: “Haas is one of the best known composers of ‘spectral’ music – music which expands the spectrum of sound that exists inside one pitch… performers and listeners are invited to explore the space between familiar sounds and more unfamiliar, almost alien textures… all at once we hear a juxtaposition of perfectly pure resonances and more abrasive microtonal inflections”.
All I can say is that the resulting performance was something exceptional – I’d certainly never heard anything quite like it… incredibly impressive.
A VERY special evening.
PS: Ligeti Quartet comprises: Mandhira de Saram (violin 1), Patrick Dawkins (violin 2), Richard Jones (viola) and Val Welbanks (cello) – they’re graduates from the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and the University of Oxford.
Photo: credit: Cathy Pyle (note: I didn’t take any of my own photographs last night – there was a young photographer ‘in action’ and I certainly didn’t want to tread on his toes!).

Monday, October 23, 2017

the death of stalin…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” - based on Fabien Nury’s graphic novel. The film paints a black-humour picture of Stalin’s sudden death in 1953 (in somewhat mysterious circumstances), following a cerebral haemorrhage, and the subsequent plotting and jostling for power by politicians from the Central Committee (who had previously cowered under Stalin’s dictatorial rule).
The film has a very impressive cast, including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Adrian McLoughlin, Simon Russell Beale, Andrea Riseborough and Jason Isaacs (with a hilarious mix of Cockney, Brooklyn and Liverpudlian accents).
It’s both funny and tragic…

One can just imagine all the behind-the-scenes battles that must have taken place as various individuals sought political power - without, of course, giving Stalin any excuse for ‘eliminating’ them - but this, for me, only emphasised the similarities with the world leaders and governments of the present day: Putin ruling Russia in way that more or less ensures that any potential challenges to his leadership are avoided outright; Trump frequently being described as someone who is unfit to be president of the USA; and here in the UK, the 2016 EU Referendum result continuing to have huge repercussions – not the least of which is the ongoing, bitter power-struggle within the Conservative Party (and to some extent within the Labour Party).
After seeing the film’s trailer, I’d rather anticipated a bit of a knockabout, almost slapstick, saga that would have me rolling in the aisle. Yes, it WAS funny… but my overriding feeling was about just how many similar political power struggles are still being fought out on the world stage today. Somewhat frightening!
Iannucci’s film is a brilliant, albeit rather scary, satire on political ideology and thirst for power… and very well worth seeing.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

world turned upside down exhibition…

I blogged about this exhibition a few days ago… but have since been up to Leeds to attend the preview night and have seen this hugely impressive group exhibition for myself. It’s curated by my great mate Si Smith and features the work of some 17 artists, responding to the Beatitudes.
The exhibition runs from Friday 20 October until Wednesday 15 November in St Edmund’s Church (Lidgett Park Road, Roundhay, Leeds LS8 1JN).

Well, it’s a pretty stunning exhibition… humbling to see some of the work from the other artists… and so beautifully put together. I particularly appreciated the ‘blurb’ from each of the artists about their work for the exhibition.
I definitely think it’s one of those exhibitions that people will choose to visit a number of times – there is so much thought-provoking work on display that having time to sit and ponder each of the pieces would be well worthwhile.
The exhibition is simply brilliantplease see it if you can.
Photo: a very rapidly put together collage of photographs of the work on display (hopefully, I’ve included work from all of the participating artists!?).
PS: The beautiful poetry of my great friend Ian Adams was also featured – in conjunction with powerful artwork from Ric Stott.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

graham gouldman at st george’s…

Last night, I went along to St George’s, with great friends Lal and Chris, to see/hear former 10cc member Graham Gouldman perform (alongside Iain Hornal and Ciaran Jeremiah).
He was superb – playing for 90 minutes and the entire ‘set’ consisting of songs he’d written (or part-written) over the past five decades. The list of his ‘hit’ songs is incredibly impressive and will be very familiar to people of my generation(!)… they includes such titles as “For Your Love”, “Evil Hearted You” and “Heart Full of Soul” (The Yardbirds); “Bus Stop”, “Look Through Any Window” (The Hollies); “No Milk Today”, “Listen People” (Herman’s Hermits) and “Pamela, Pamela” (Wayne Fontana). In 1972, along with Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Crème, Gouldman formed 10cc and they enjoyed a string of highly successful records, including “Rubber Bullets”, “I’m Not In Love”, “Dreadlock Holiday”, “Donna”, “Art For Art’s Sake”, “Good Morning Judge”, “The Things We Do For Love”, “I’m Mandy Fly Me” and “The Wall Street Shuffle".
An AMAZING array of some of the most popular songs of the 1960s and 70s, in particular.

Gouldman’s status as one of the world’s leading songwriters has rightly been acknowledged with his induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame at a special ceremony in New York.
What was particularly good about last night’s concert was that all the songs were played acoustically (and by highly-talented, accomplished musicians) – none of your digitally-enhanced stuff for them!
As you might imagine, the evening was also interspersed with stories and anecdotes… Gouldman came across as a very ‘nice’ and ‘genuine’ bloke who continues to enjoy making music. Last night’s large and enthusiastic audience would no doubt urge him to do so for many years to come!
A brilliant evening.
Photo: Graham Gouldman (with Ciaran Jeremiah and Iain Hornal) at last night’s concert.
PS: There’s been a brilliant documentary on BBC4 (“I’m not in Love: The Story of 10cc”) that’s well worth watching – although, for some reason, it doesn’t currently seem to be available on BBC iPlayer.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

world turned upside down…

“World Turned Upside Down” is the name of a rather special exhibition that’s being curated by my amazing friend Si Smith (see note below) in Leeds. Although I feel a little out of my depth (understatement!), I am one of 17 artists (including daughter Ruth) contributing work for the exhibition. 
It’s a group exhibition responding to the Beatitudes.
The exhibition runs from evening Friday (evening) 20 October until Wednesday 15 November in St Edmund’s Church (Lidgett Park Road, Roundhay, Leeds LS8 1JN).
I previously participated in one of Si’s curated exhibitions at the Left Bank, Leeds in 2012… and it was stunningly impressive (not my stuff, I hasten to add!) – so I KNOW this one will be well worth seeing if you’re anywhere in the Leeds area.

Si Smith explains the unlikely, extraordinary inspiration for the exhibition as follows:
“At Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony, the Beatitudes were read. That struck me as a truly dissonant moment and – whether deliberate or not – a pretty direct rebuke to the values that he represents. Because whilst we’ve succumbed to the belief that it’s the richest, the strongest and the most powerful who’ll always and inevitably triumph, the message of the beatitudes is that in the end, it is actually the meek who’ll inherit the Earth. As I pondered it, that idea of re-imagining a world turned on its head really appealed to me, and it’s something that our contributing artists have enjoyed grappling with too – I think that the work they are producing will make for a really interesting and thought-provoking exhibition”.

For the exhibition, I’ve put together twelve simple photographs of twelve rough sleepers (Chris, Daniel, Gary, Gemma, Geordie, Ian, Joe, Kim, Nathan, Paul, Phillip and Shaun) I’ve befriended over recent months. As I’m sure you’ll appreciate, here in Bristol – like most cities across the UK – there are SEVERAL dozen rough sleepers… (apparently, in the past six years, the number of rough sleepers in the city has increased NINEFOLD)(yes, ninefold!).
They each have their own stories, but I’m not providing any details or specifically identifying them. I think it’s better to let their portraits speak for them… (I’m not going to show the overall piece of work because one of the individuals didn’t want his photograph shown on facebook… and I don’t want to break his trust). They are individuals with lives to live – each with their hopes and aspirations, each with their fears and regrets.
Blessed be the meek…

This is what I wrote for my exhibition blurb:
“This year, I’ve spent more time talking to some of the rough sleepers in our city.
They’ve all got their stories…
The thing that has struck me most is their quiet dignity and their gentle friendliness.
I’ve never been threatened or verbally abused and they’re always happy to talk.
None of them likes the way they’re forced to live.
Some of them live in doorways.
Some live in small make-shift tents.
Some live in squats.
Some get the occasional respite of a night shelter.
Some are there because they lost their jobs and/or could no longer afford to pay their rent.
Some are there because of their own foolishness in the past.
Most are there due to circumstances beyond their control.
There are sad stories of broken relationships, broken homes… of being unable to cope.
There are sad stories of being verbally or physically abused by passers-by or rowdy drinkers.
There are sad stories of being robbed of what little money they had or having their tents slashed. 
Many feel ashamed by their circumstances.
Many just want to be given another chance.
Many simply feel hopeless… utterly hopeless.
Most feel that society doesn’t care about them.
The sad reality is that, once you’re down, it’s very difficult to get back on your feet again”.
I think the exhibition will provide plenty of food for thought.
Please see it if you can.
Photo: this is just ONE of the individuals I’ve spoken to over recent months… I chat to him regularly.
PS: Si Smith is a wonderful illustrator (as well as being a very special bloke)… who created, amongst LOTS of other work, the thought-provoking book “How To Disappear Completely”.


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.