Wednesday, June 21, 2017

slack bay (ma loute)…

Yes, I know, choosing to go to the cinema on one of the hottest days of the year isn’t everyone’s idea of fun… but that’s what I did this afternoon! I wanted a break from all the sad frustrations and horror of the real world and felt that Bruno Dumont’s film (with a wealth of amazing French stars including Juliette Binoche - say, no more! - Fabrice Luchini and Valerie Bruni Tedeschi) now showing at the Watershed would be just the thing.
I was aware of the film’s background/story and was perfectly content to enjoy the bizarre, over-the-top, ridiculous romp that this film would undoubtedly be…
I wasn’t even put off by the postcard reviews on the entrance staircase that the Watershed encourages from its audience. These are just four of them: “Strange… very odd, macabre and funny”; “I hated it”; “One of the worst films I’ve ever seen” and “Funny, bizarre and clever”!  
I’ll try to outline the plot… albeit very briefly! Postcard-perfect seaside village in northern France in 1910… there’s a working class family (the Bruforts) – a lowly clan of fishermen (who also double as ferrymen to either row or CARRY people across the low waters that surround the dunes; there are the upper-class Van Peteghems, vacating for the summer; and there are two detectives investigating unsolved and mysterious disappearances. These detectives are played (literally) in the guise of Laurel and Hardy characters – one huge and one very slight individual, dressed in black suits and bowler hats.

I’m really not a great lover of slap-stick humour, but I REALLY enjoyed this film (and so, it seemed, did the rest of the audience)… wonderful timing, ludicrous incidents, complete and utter over-acting by all the adult members of the Van Peteghem family (I thought Fabrice Luchini was superb) and an absolutely ridiculous, exaggerated plot – which included good old-fashioned cannibalism plus a measure of gender-bending identity crises!! Don’t ask!
If I had one minor criticism, it would be its length (122 minutes)… I think it could have been 20 minutes shorter and still just as funny/crisp.
The film is theatrically extravagant and, at times, almost Pythonesque… and I know it won’t be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, but I loved it (and laughed out loud on several occasions – sorry!).

Thursday, June 15, 2017

bristol pilgrimage 2017…

If you’re ever on the beautiful island of Iona, the weekly pilgrimage walk around the island is an experience not to be missed.
During the course of my 8-week stay there as a volunteer with the Iona Community in 2012, I bought Jane Bentley+Neil Paynter’s really excellent book “Around A Thin Place” (an Iona pilgrimage guide) and, as well as using it when I was on Iona, I have used it as a resource for my own Bristol pilgrimage version on three previous occasions (undertaken in September 2012, March 2014 and June 2015).
Yesterday, I decided to undertake a fourth ‘pilgrimage’ journey around Bristol (strangely, I thought I’d done more than this… but the blog never lies!).

This time, I broke up my route into eight sections or stops… pausing for reflections taken from the book, together with my own deliberations. Each time I’ve done this, I’ve used a completely different set of locations and, as on my previous walks, the weather was perfect.
As before, I related my stopping points with pilgrimage stops on Iona:
St Martin’s Cross/setting out on the road was Gaol Ferry Bridge; The Crossroads was the Cumberland Piazza (essentially land under the flyovers by Cumberland Basin); Dun I/High Point was the Clifton Suspension Bridge; The Hermit’s Cell was, perhaps a little incongruously, Clifton Cathedral (the Roman Catholic cathedral); St Columba’s Bay was the Harbour/Harbourside; The Machair was Queen Square; The Jetty was Temple Meads station;
and St Oran’s Chapel/Reilig Odhrain was God’s Garden (a grassed area beside the Cut).

I’ve been chatting to quite a few of Bristol’s homeless people over recent months and I found my final stop at God’s Garden particularly poignant. On Iona, St Oran’s Chapel was the place that the bodies of numerous kings were sent for burial – the end of the journey (literally)… the homecoming, as it were. God’s Garden was my final stop before arriving back at home, just up the road. But, for many of the homeless, God’s Garden IS home. Small, rough tents, belonging to these otherwise homeless people, have appeared over recent months. As you might imagine, it’s far from ideal but it does represent the nearest thing to home for many of them. It’s a very tough existence – made all the worse because of the frequent thefts of their ‘belongings’ or people causing deliberate damage to their tents… or even the risk of flooding (from the adjacent tidal Cut). Life is tough… everyone needs their dignity.
Within two minutes of leaving God’s Garden, I passed a roadsign declaring “Home Zone ENDS” (Home Zones are small local residential areas where traffic and pedestrians are mixed together – no pavements). In the circumstances, it seemed a particularly ironic, sad statement.
The day proved to be another challenging and thought-provoking time… and something that I will no doubt repeat in Bristol over the coming years.
This Celtic blessing, from the book, seemed to sum up my day rather nicely:
May God’s goodness be yours,
and well, and seven times well, may you spend your lives:
may you be an isle in the sea,
may you be a hill on the shore,
may you be a star in the darkness,
may you be a staff to the weak;
and may the power of the Spirit
pour on you, richly and generously,
today, and in the days to come.
Photos: just a few photographs from my day.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

my life as a courgette…

Taking a somewhat pessimistic view of the outcome of today’s general election (but, hey, maybe I’ll be proved wrong?!), I decided to cheer myself up yesterday by going to see Claude Barras’s “My Life As A Courgette”.
You might not have come across the film before, but I’m just telling you:
When I tell you that it’s an animation film – only 66 minutes long – featuring characters with enormous heads and that the leading individual is a nine year-old boy who calls himself “Courgette” (well, his mother used to call him that name), then you’d be excused for thinking that my enthusiasm was just a little over-the-top…
Courgette finds himself in a local orphanage after his alcoholic mother’s sudden death. There he meets a misfit group of children, each with their own emotional baggage and traumas to bear. But, with the help of the brilliantly supportive orphanage staff, the children find ways of getting on with their lives - and in relative harmony. Courgette’s world becomes even brighter with the arrival of young Camille…
It’s a PG film made for both children and adults (but, with all the tragic family backgrounds, my gut feeling is perhaps 10 years plus?).
The film deals with very difficult issues… but it still manages to be funny, tender, sensitive, uplifting and very beautiful. The music (by Sophie Hunger) is rather lovely too.
I didn’t (quite) cry, but critic Mark Kermode certainly did… and gave it a five star review.
I absolutely LOVED this film (and so will you)!
PS: When I originally saw the trailer, it came with sub-titles (and, with the pretty rapid dialogue, it probably meant that you’d be concentrating on the sub-titles rather than the animation?)… but the version I saw yesterday had been dubbed in English – which probably made it easier (for me) to digest/appreciate the film fully.


Saturday, June 03, 2017


Moira and I went along to the Bristol Old Vic last night to see Theatre Company 1927’s “Golem”… and we emerged feeling incredibly fortunate to have witnessed such a wonderful piece of extraordinary, inventive theatre.
Our good fortune was at Hannah+Felix’s expense (literally)… they had passed on their tickets to us after another engagement had cropped up (doubly sad, because I know they would both have enjoyed the performance enormously).
The 1927 Theatre production embraces technology, art, design, original film and animation projections (by Paul Barritt) with stunning, slick precision to tell director/writer Suzanne Andrade’s story about mass-technology and its effects on our lives - initially through the ‘character’ of a clay figure called Golem, who comes to life and begins to take on basis tasks that help simplify the life of its ‘owner’… and this Golem, in turn, is replaced by Golem 2… and then Golem 3 (a bit like iPhone 7?).
Technology gradually taking over.
It’s a brilliant blend of acting, music, projections and lighting… breathtakingly clever, witty and stunningly stylish. The acting (and the immaculate timing) is excellent.
The mingling of of live performance with animation and film is quite, quite magical.
As we approach another General Election, it’s perhaps a gentle reminder of some of the shortcomings and losers in this brave new world of ours! You know, the one where corporations and shareholders seem to be the only winners?!
Essentially, it’s a message about anti-consumerism and anti-technology/dreams becoming nightmares… and, obviously, as someone who a) still uses a pen or pencil to write notes, b) doesn’t own an iPad, c) has recently exchanged his BlackBerry for a very basic answer/call/text mobile phone and d) no longer owns a car, I can be excused for feeling somewhat superior and smug! Yeh, right!
It really was an extraordinary, colourful, intoxicating, unique evening of theatre – 90 non-stop minutes full of wonderful imagery and invention… and a modern fable.
PS: The 1927 Theatre Company is on tour with ‘Golem’ until 24 June. Today (3 June) is the last night at the Old Vic, but it’ll be showing at Ipswich, Oxford and Harrogate over the coming weeks. If you get a chance, PLEASE see this production… you DEFINITELY won’t regret it!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

the red turtle…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle”. It’s a co-production with Japanese animation giants Studio Ghibli (Isao Takahata is artistic producer)… so it immediately ticked LOTS of boxes as far as I was concerned!
It’s a stunningly beautiful film – with Dudok de Wit mixing hand- and computer-drawn images throughout – and it’s also completely wordless! Laurent Perez del Mar’s breath-taking score perfectly complements the minimalist visuals… making words completely unnecessary!
The film is about the unlikely ‘friendship’ between an island castaway and an enormous sea turtle. The shipwrecked man, on a deserted island, struggles to construct a raft, but every attempt to leave is thwarted by a huge red turtle that seems intent on having him stay.
This is one of those films that you just have to see for yourself… it’s an enigmatic masterpiece.
Everyone who sees it will no doubt have a different ‘take’ on the film. I certainly don’t intend to try to explain it (I’m still trying to come to terms with bits of it myself) but I’ll just say this: the man sets out to foil the creature’s attempts to prevent his escape but, in doing so, the man finds himself being instructed in the ways of companionship, respect for the environment and ultimately being led to understand that nature must take its course.
But don’t just take my word for it… I’ve just read Mark Kermode’s five-star review in The Guardian and he ends his piece as follows:
“Seamlessly combining analogue and digital animation…, they compose a visual symphony that seems to comprise a history of cinema itself; from monochrome nights to richly hued days; from porous green trees to luminous blue seas; orange sunlight to pearlescent moonlight…
Integrating his cues with the natural soundscape, the composer utilises wood and bamboo percussion, gentle flutes and soaring strings to negotiate the film’s kaleidoscopic tones. The melodies have a nursery rhyme candour, yet encompass themes of longing and anguish, despair and delight, love and death.
I could say more, but this is a film that respects the sound of silence. It is a work of art which transcends boundaries of language, culture, geography and age. It is simply magnificent”.
It’s a poignant, powerful, gentle, charming and rather wonderful film – which I strongly urge you to see.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

april-may 2017 books…

Old Filth (Jane Gardam): This is the second book I’ve read from Gardam’s “Old Filth” trilogy… in fact, this particular book was the first to be published (in 2004). Filth (the name given to him by his colleagues at the Bar – ‘Failed In London Try Hong Kong’!), in his heyday, was an international lawyer with a practice in the Far East. He was born in the mid-1920s and, after a childhood in Malaya, was one of many children sent ‘Home’ from the East to be fostered and educated in England at the onset of WW2. It’s a beautiful, poignant and, frequently, very funny book about the ‘glory days’ of the British Empire… and about ageing and relationships. Gardam is a brilliant writer and this is one of my very favourite books.
Gut (Giulia Enders): The book cover describes it thus: “the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ’. In 2012, Enders (who was then studying for a doctorate in gastroenterology) won the first prize at the Science Slam in Berlin with her talk “Charming Bowels”! She duly received offers to write a book on the subject and “Gut” is the resulting publication (“a publishing sensation” as The Times describes it). It’s an absolutely fascinating book – hugely entertaining and informative – covering all manner of things from the basics of nutrient absorption to the latest science linking bowel bacteria with depression. A thoroughly enthralling book, but one which, ultimately, I was somewhat relieved to have finished… there’s only SO much talk about poo, vomiting, constipation et al that one can take! A pretty wonderful book, nevertheless… and beautifully illustrated too (yes, really!)! 
The Cubs And Other Stories (Mario Vargas Llosa): Llosa, born in Peru in 1936, is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and this a collection of early writing in a volume of seven short stories… essentially related Llosa’s “domain of male youth and machismo, where life’s dramas play themselves out on the soccer field, on the dance floor and on street corners”. I have to admit that I sometimes struggled to come to terms with the author’s writing style (especially in ‘The Cubs’). Not exactly my cup of tea. Sorry!
Botanicum (Katie Scott and Kathy Willis): This is a rather stunning book that celebrates the world of plants. Text by Kew’s Director of Science, Professor Kathy Willis, and lavishly illustrated by Katie Scott. It describes itself as a “museum” which is “open all hours”. As you would imagine, it’s very informative and Scott’s drawings are very beautiful (if I have one gripe – and I’m sure it’s just me! – I do think SOME of the coloured illustrations have a rather “Walt Disney”, almost cartoonish, quality about them, which wasn’t to my personal taste… but a very lovely book nevertheless.
Last Friends (Jane Gardam): This is the last book of Gardam’s ‘The Old Filth’ trilogy. I’ve REALLY enjoyed all the books and will certainly be seeking out more of her books over the coming months. ‘Last Friends’ is continuing story about love, memories and ageing (see above!) – this time, adding Veneering’s story to the mix (Veneering was Old Filth’s chief “rival in law and love”… who later became a good friend). Gardam’s gift for the gradual uncovering of events and people’s stories (and the sheer beauty of her writing) are some of the real joys of all three books. Highly recommended! 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I’ve just voted…

This afternoon, I sent off my postal vote in connection with next month’s General Election.
I’m a member of the Green Party but, somewhat controversially (many would say… especially my Green Party friends), I voted for Karin Smyth – our local Labour Party candidate (and the sitting MP).
I did so NOT because I think the Labour Party has proved to be an effective Opposition – far from it – but because I felt it was the most effective way, locally (under our ridiculous first-past-the-post electoral system), to ensure that the Conservative Party didn’t sneak in through the back door.
I actually think the chances of this are extremely slim (it’s been a Labour stronghold since 1935) – although if UKIP’s vote collapses (they came third in 2015 with over 8,000 votes), then the Tories could feasibly win if all former UKIP voters changed to the Conservatives (Labour beat the Tories by just over 7,000 votes last time).

At the beginning of November last year, I blogged about my fears (given the state of the Opposition) that there was going to be a General Election“very soon”. I felt that the ONLY way to prevent a Tory landslide at the next general Election was “for the opposition parties to work together in order to try to maximise their chances (they might not win an election but, at worst, they might secure a far more effective Opposition)”.
I went on to say that in order for this happen, it would “require Labour, LibDems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru to work together (in England and Wales) and to decide which party stands the best chance of winning each individual parliamentary seat (and to concentrate their limited resources/budget accordingly). Sadly (in terms of true democracy), this will mean that the Green Party, for instance, should only contest perhaps a total of say six seats; the LibDems say 75; Plaid Cymru say 20? In all the other constituencies (and, yes, that would include mine), this would mean the electorate making a straight decision between the Tories and Labour (with UKIP perhaps eating into more Tory votes than Labour!).
It’s far from ideal, but it might be the ONLY way the Labour Party (and the country!) can avoid utter disaster. It would also mean that the Labour Party would agree to incorporate LibDems/Greens/Plaid Cymru policies within its own manifesto (and include members from the other parties within its own Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet)”.

Sadly, despite the Green Party pressing other political parties to enter into some form of election pact, no such arrangement has been agreed. In my view, even despite the lack of any official agreement, I firmly believe it is quite ludicrous for the Green Party to waste its very limited financial resources (don’t get me started on funding for national parties!), for example, here in South Bristol (where it gained support from less than 12% of constituency voters in 2015)… instead, again in my view, they should be concentrating 100% on winning Bristol West (a distinct possibility according to the local media). Bristol West is one of only a handful of seats throughout the country that the Greens have ANY chance of winning. Unfortunately, any such Green victory would be at the expense of Labour!
So, far from ideal, but frankly, there probably isn’t a single current Tory seat in our local area that the Conservative Party is likely to lose 
But now the die is cast… the deadline for candidates to be in place has passed (on 11 May). I just find it staggering that the Opposition parties haven’t been able (or even shown any desire… apart from the Greens) to allow a constituency-by-constituency arrangement for current Tory-held seats or identified ‘marginals’ whereby only a single opposition candidate from the national parties stands against a Conservative candidate.  

So, it’s now all down to the electorate (and you probably know my views on democracy!). If EVERY voter – well, realistically, those living in perhaps the hundred(?) where the outcome might be in doubt, under the first-past-the-post system - made a careful judgement and only voted for the opposition candidate most likely to have a chance of winning against the Tory candidate, then the outcome could be VERY different… but I’m not holding my breath.
I would love the opinion polls to be wrong yet again and for a non-Tory government to be in place come 9 June, but I very much doubt it.
I fear the worst!

Friday, May 19, 2017


I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Francois Ozon’s “sumptuous period piece set in the aftermath of WW1, where a young woman forms an unlikely bond with a man she encounters at her late fiancé’s grave” (as the Watershed’s blurb puts it).
In a small German town after the end of the war, Anna (beautifully played by the beautiful Paula Beer) mourns daily at the grave of her fiancé, who was killed in battle. One day a mysterious young Frenchman Adrien (again, very well played by Pierre Niney) also lays flowers on the grave… and the pair embark on a friendship – in which Anna finds some solace in memories of her beloved.
That’s all I’m saying… you need to see the film!
This largely black-and-white film is apparently a loose adaptation of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch drama Broken Lullaby, which was in turn based on a play by French playwright Maurice Rostand – although Ozon has written his own new second half of the story.
The film is part-romance, part anti-war and highlights the struggles, sufferings and reactions of people from both sides (in this case, German and French). The film also highlights the rise of nationalism in Germany immediately after the first world war – a theme which has been echoed recently with a rise of nationalism in Europe generally (eg. Marine Le Pen’s far-right party gaining popular support in France; UKIP’s voice in the depressing Brexit vote… and some politicians calling for a return to borders).
It’s a powerful film about remembrance, love… and the pain (some would say ‘futility’) of war.
I very much enjoyed it (and was completely captivated by Paula Beer’s portrayal of Anna!).
PS: My enjoyment of the film was somewhat marred by the two loud-mouthed, elderly (my age!), ‘posh’ ladies sitting immediately behind me - who insisted on commenting on what was happening on screen in ‘stage whispers’ throughout the film – DESPITE me twice turning round and giving them my ‘look’!!

Monday, May 15, 2017

southbank bristol arts trail 2017 at number40

Last weekend saw the 15th SouthBank Bristol Arts Trail… and, as it was our 14th consecutive SBA Trail, I suspect that we’re now its longest serving participants. We’re perhaps fortunate that our house is located relatively close to the Southville Centre (one of the largest venues on the Trail) and therefore has acquired a fair amount of “passing trade” over the years - but actually, as an established venue, we now enjoy something of a reputation of being a ‘venue worth visiting’ and have the privilege of welcoming  returning ‘punters’ year after year and it’s always a delight to see them. But we’re also very fortunate to be able to attract plenty of new visitors too.
We didn’t count the number of people visiting this year but, by common consent (based on previous years), we certainly had some 700 plus ‘punters’ into our basement studio over the weekend (the weather was very kind to us yet again).
It’s very much a ‘family affair’ at number40 – this year (as is often the case) we had five family members exhibiting (Moira, Hannah, Ruth, Stuart and me – plus Iris and Rosa, who decided to make cakes!) together with our lovely arty friends Wendy, Georgie+Alex from Pirrip Press and Paul Ashley Brown.
Each year, it’s a bit of a challenge (something of an understatement!) to clear the basement of its usual studio clutter - and to transfer it all to the dining room! There are certainly times when we wonder if it’s all worthwhile… and yet, every year, we end up feeling grateful to have been part of it again.
I have to admit that there are times when I feel that Bristol has reached saturation point as far as Arts Trails are concerned (the SouthBank Trail is the city’s second longest-running trail, I think) – especially as it seems that some artists like to participate in perhaps four or five of the trails(!)… but, hey, these things go through various reincarnations over the years. Each year, there’s always a doubt as to whether the event will happen… will there be sufficient people prepared to help organise? I was part of the steering group for perhaps 10 years, so it’s DEFINITELY an event crying out for fresh blood every year!
There is a tremendous sense of community about the Arts Trail… over 150 artists in more than 50 venues within a HALF MILE radius!!
That’s SOME artistic community!
Fingers crossed for next year…
Photograph: various stuff from this year’s Arts Trail at number40.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

richard murphy at the arnolfini…

Marcus and I went along to the Arnolfini last night to hear architect Richard Murphy talk about the work of his Edinburgh practice - with particularly emphasis on the house he designed for himself at Hart Street, Edinburgh… which won the RIBA’s ‘House of the Year’ award in 2016.
The evening, organised by The Architecture Centre, in association the Bristol+Bath Branch of the RIBA, was attended by a near-capacity audience and Murphy proved to be an entertaining, engaging speaker.
The award-winning house acts as a 'bookend' to the adjoining terrace of Hart Street houses. The roof made mostly of glass with inset photovoltaic cells is designed both to ensure daylight to the adjacent basement flat on Forth Street and also to act as a major collector of solar energy. Inside the roof are a number of insulated shutters which are capable of closing when the roof is in net heat loss mode and opening when there is a net heat gain.

For me, one of the house’s most impressive features was its ability to maximise daylight but also, when required, to be somewhere to hunker down – or as Murphy described it (citing Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck - who’d said that a house should be both “a bird’s nest and a cave, an extrovert place in summer and a retreat in winter”): “In Edinburgh, we can have 20 hours of daylight a day or six; the house needs to close down as much as open up”.
Murphy’s practice made a simple video which shows some of the house’s features – it’s only 6 minutes long and well worth watching.
A very good evening and a very impressive architect.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

tartuffe at the tobacco factory theatre…

Moira and I went along to the Tobacco Factory Theatre last night to see Andrew Hilton’s and Dominic Power’s adaptation of Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (first performed some 350 years ago) as part of the annual “Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory” season (yes, I know, Moliere isn’t Shakespeare!). It’s a complete reinvention of the play which follows Moliere’s pattern of using rhyming couplets (somewhat awkwardly at times for my liking), but set in today’s world of fake news and political uncertainty(!).
Moliere’s original ’victim’ character, Orgon, is here transformed into a gullible government minister Charles Ogden - played in Yes Minister mode by Christopher Bianchi - who is fooled into bequeathing his family fortune (and almost his wife and daughter) to Tartuffe, played by Mark Meadows, as some sort of present-day cultural guru – whose greed and ideology is capable of destroying lives for his own ends. I wasn’t entirely convinced that the family could have been naïve enough to allow the Tartuffe character to live in their house rent free (and meals provided) for as long as he did… but, hey!
A very enjoyable, entertaining evening (although, at times, I felt the play verged on becoming too farcical). I particularly enjoyed the performance of the Polish maidservant, Danuta (yes, they even included an EU migrant worker!), played by Anna Elijasz (Polish herself and who trained at the State Academy in Warsaw).
It seems like an awful long time since we last went to the Tobacco Factory Theatre (a couple of years perhaps?)… we’ll be back again soon. Promise.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

april 2017 books…

The Idiot Brain (Dean Burnett): This is a very entertaining and illuminating book. Its front cover boldly describes it thus: “a neuroscientist explains what your head is really up to”… and that just about sums it up. It endeavours to explain such things as how the memory works, panic attacks, depression, motion sickness, forgetting people’s names, false memories… At times, I felt somewhat numbed by scientific facts, but Burnett has a wonderful knack of being able to explain complicated stuff in a very simple (frequently very funny) way. He also highlights some very bizarre examples, such as: researchers who first looked into the phenomenon of less-intelligent people being more confident were “inspired by reports of a criminal who held up banks after covering his face with lemon juice, because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, so he thought his face wouldn’t show up on camera”. Precious!  
Wilderness Taunts (Ian Adams): This is the second of my Lent books (written by my brilliant friend Ian Adams). It’s a tough book of daily reflections/meditations – reflecting Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Challenging messages and, as the title suggests, taunts… but also there’s light. Maybe these taunts and challenges turn out to be gifts that help us to better understand who we are and whatever is being called of us? Despite its hard questions, I found the book both accessible, relevant and hugely thought-provoking (it also contains Ian’s beautiful, haunting photographs). A really excellent resource that I know I’ll continue to revisit.
London Transport Posters (Michael F Levey): This beautiful book tells the story of London Transport’s championing of poster art from 1909 until 1976 (thanks to the vision of Frank Pick, from the time he joined LT in 1906). I’ve always loved posters and, over the past couple of years, have been taking an increasing in the work of Fred Taylor (1875-1963) – who was born in London and designed posters for London Transport between 1908 and 1947. The book only contains 80 posters, but they’re enough to capture and highlight this particular art form born of our modern industrialised society. I really enjoyed this book… and it has also drawn my attention to several other talented artists, such as: E McKnight Kauffer, William Roberts, Oleg Zinger, FC Herrick and Charles Pears.
The Man In The Wooden Hat (Jane Gardam): Moira had recently read and very much enjoyed this book (it’s part of a trilogy), so I thought I’d give it a ‘go’. On the face of it, it really isn’t ‘my sort of thing’, but I was quite, quite wrong. It’s about a judge, his colonial upbringing and career, his long marriage, his rivalries and friendships… and told, in the main, from his wife’s perspective. It’s an evocative, charming, sometimes difficult, story about love, about people, about secrets… and about growing old. Gardam is a stunningly good writer and this was an exceptionally good book (I can’t wait to read the other two).
Book Of Longing (Leonard Cohen): Cohen has been something of a life-long hero for me. I’ve loved his songs right from the late 1960s. This book (first published in 2006) is a new collection of his poetry and writings – mainly taken from the mid-1980s onwards. For me, there are times when his work seems to have a sense of the ‘emperor’s clothes’ and leaves even me thinking: “I could have written that”, but I very much enjoyed the book. In a way, it tells the story of a life – sometimes playful, sometimes colourful, frequently erotic and occasionally angry. It also, perhaps, contains the arrogance of the idolised. Some of the pieces were subsequently used as song lyrics for the album “Ten New Songs”. One of the surprising joys, for me, was the inclusion of several of Cohen’s own illustrations (often quick, scribbled self-portraits ridiculing his ageing features!). Having finished the book in the early hours (not being able to sleep), I found the following words from his poem “I Am Now Able” wonderfully ironic (as well as not sleeping, I hardly ever use the telephone!): “I am now able/ to sleep twenty hours a day/The remaining four/are spent/telephoning a list/of important people/in order/to say goodnight…”. I’ll continue to dip into this rather lovely book.

Friday, April 21, 2017

the sense of an ending…

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Ritesh Batra’s film of Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning novel. I’d read the book nearly five years ago and had loved it.
The principal character, Tony (wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent), now retired and divorced, reflects on his schoolboy days, his friendships and a particularly painful relationship during his university days… and then something happens (I can’t tell you!) that turns the clock back 40 years.
Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica, Tony’s university girlfriend – with Billy Howie and Freya Mavor playing the characters (rather delightfully) in their younger days. The other main supporting actors Harriet Walter (who plays Tony’s ex-wife and confidante, Margaret), Michelle Dockeryl (who plays Tony’s daughter) and Emily Mortimer (playing Veronica’s mothers) are very good too.
Essentially, it’s a story about ageing and memory – something I’ve been reflecting on an awful lot lately.
It’s a poignant, moving film – beautifully acted and excellently crafted.
I was particularly pleased that the film included my favourite quote from the book (P95):
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves.”
I think you need to see it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro…

I went to the Watershed yesterday to see Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro”.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic… frequently exploring racial, sexual and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America.
Essentially, this is a documentary envisioning a book that Baldwin never finished. He left behind just 30 completed pages of a manuscript about the lives of three of his close friends – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The resulting film is a radical view of race in America today – using Baldwin’s original words (narrated by Samuel L Jackson) and a mass of archival material (including Baldwin participating in various studio discussions and also at a Cambridge Union debate in 1965). Again and again, Baldwin criticises the romantic perception of the “American Dream” and it has adversely affected African Americans.
I’d seen a preview of the film and knew that it would be difficult viewing.
Most of us are well aware of seeing footage of some of the horrific, vicious, racist scenes from the 1950s and 60s – including shameful scenes of police violence, the frightening, humiliating, anti-black protests by whites and a reminder of an awful time in the USA when white and black were segregated. Director Raoul Peck, in the Watershed’s programme notes, said this: “Because there were some victories with the Civil Right’s Movement - we have Martin Luther King day, we have Black History Month - most people think everything is good now, we’ve solved all of the problems. We have monuments; we have museums. But, that’s not the case”.  
The film represents a timely, powerful challenge to the definition of what America stands for today – especially in the light of relatively recent #BlackLivesMatter ‘incidents’ and since President Trump’s inauguration (and his various comments during the presidential campaign).
But, of course, sections of America aren’t alone in adopting such intolerant attitudes… in Europe, we have the migrant crisis (amongst other things) and here in the UK, after the depressing Brexit vote, we have seen an alarming rise in reported hate crimes.
Sadly, thirty years on, Baldwin’s words feel as urgent and as articulate as ever.
It’s a difficult, shocking, compelling and saddening film to watch, but I urge you to see it.

Friday, April 07, 2017

march-april 2017 books…

Mystery In The Channel (Freeman Wills Crofts): Yet another escapist novel from the British Library Crime Classics! It was first published in 1931 and is very much of that era (although with a modern sub-text, given these days of austerity and the murky world of City finances). Two bodies are discovered on an otherwise deserted yacht in the English Channel… another challenging case for Inspector French! Like many of the crime novels of its time, the plot is hugely contrived (but intriguing, nonetheless) – one almost gets a sense of the author endeavouring to show his ‘cleverness’ to his fellow writers. Of course, I had my strong suspicions by page 48!
The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley): This is a very clever and frequently very funny book (first published in 1929). Yes, I apologise that it’s yet another escapist crime book but, having commented about crime writers trying to show off their cleverness (see previous book ‘review’!), the author takes some pleasure in highlighting the somewhat outlandish way in which his fellow crime writers compete to come up with contrived puzzles which their brilliant, deductive detectives solve – but which, in his view, seldom stood up to close scrutiny. The basis for Berkeley’s book is a crime club of six detective novelists who regularly meet up for dinner and conversation… but whose President comes up with the suggestion that they should each try to solve a recent unsolved, ‘real-life’ crime involving the poisoning of an attractive, rich, society woman. They take it in turns to offer a solution… each one more convincing than the last. Unusual and very entertaining.    
The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman (Grayson Perry): Moira and I went to the British Museum in 2011 to see Grayson Perry’s remarkable, fascinating exhibition. His work is accompanied by treasures trawled from the British Museum’s own collection. Although we bought the accompanying book, I hadn’t really read it until now (yes, I’d looked at the pictures, but that’s about it!)(actually, there aren’t that many words either!). It’s been particularly interesting after several recent chats to daughter Ruth about the status of craftspeople/makers in today’s art world. Perry is a bit of hero of mine, but I’d be the first to admit that, with him, it’s about ego and self-promotion (as well as huge artistic talent). I was particularly struck by Jacob Bronowski words included in the book’s introduction: “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well and, having done it well, he loves to do it better. You see it in his science. You see it in the magnificence with which he carves and builds, the loving care, the gaiety, the effrontery. The monuments are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end the man they commemorate is the builder”. The book, like the exhibition, is full of beautiful pieces, but it also left me reflecting on all the craftspeople whose talents were never fully recognised or rewarded… and how this situation remains for so many of these skilled artists today.
Death On The Riviera (John Bude): Ok, I really think I’m coming to an end of my ‘crime reading’ phase (I’ve just been attracted the British Library Crime Classics’ covers)! Another John Bude/Inspector Meredith novel (first published in 1952)… but no actual body appears before page 170! Set on the French Riviera, Inspector Meredith is sent to trace the whereabouts of renowned crook and forger… and action centres on the rather grand residence of an eccentric Englishwoman. Easy reading, entertaining, funny (at times), hugely dated (of course) and, as ever, pretty contrived… at one point, towards the end of the book, I even found myself saying “don’t tell me, you’re about to announce a somewhat ridiculous device that will magically solve all your plot problems” (and he duly did)! Hey ho… time I got back to ‘real life’ perhaps.
The Dark Flood Rises (Margaret Drabble): I’d never read a Margaret Drabble book before this one (Moira passed it on to me). I was duly impressed. She writes beautifully. It’s a novel about old age and dying (so, not a bundle of laughs then – although, actually, it is rather funny at times). The book’s main character, Fran (aged 70+), is a rather lovely, ordinary-but-special lady who lives on her own in an insalubrious tower block. She enjoys spending the odd night in a Premier Inn during the course of her work, being in touch with her friends, worrying about her children and feels a ‘duty’ to deliver ready-cooked meals to her first husband Claude (her second husband is dead). Fairly early on in the book, Drabble acknowledges that while life expectancy has increased, it’s reckoned that the majority of us can expect to spend the last six years of our prolonged lives suffering from a serious illness, in some form of pain and ill health. Fran, who (somewhat ironically) continued to work for a charitable trust researching sheltered housing for the elderly, was far from impressed: “Fran found this statistic, true or false, infuriating. Longevity has fucked up our pensions, our work-life balance, our health services, our housing, our happiness. It’s fucked up old age itself.” It’s a gentle, poignant book… but also one that I have to admit that I found rather depressing (probably just down to my current mood?). The beginning of the end? Oh dear me!

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

the olive tree…

I went to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Iciar Bollain’s film “The Olive Tree” (with screenplay by Paul Laverty – who’s penned many of Ken Loach’s films).
It’s a gentle, charming film about an old Spanish man (played by Manuel Cucala) who has retreated into depression and dementia after his family had, against his will, uprooted and sold off his beloved 2,000 year-old olive tree to pay for a failed, now bankrupt, family restaurant business.
His granddaughter, Alma (played by Anna Castillo), cannot bear the thought of her grandfather dying without this terrible wrong corrected… and comes up with a somewhat farcical, harebrained plan to locate the tree and return it to the family orchard.
She discovers that the buyer of the tree is a Dusseldorf energy company – which has an image of the tree as its logo as a symbol of its very questionable ‘green credentials’… and, thanks to social media, the plan energises German environmental campaigners.

The film is perhaps a sad reflection of the values (or lack of them) of big business set against environmental concerns, rich against poor… achieving wealth now and ignoring implications for the future.
Not the best film I’ll see in 2017, but rather lovely nevertheless.


Saturday, April 01, 2017

question mark at bristol cathedral…

This morning, I went along to Bristol cathedral to see/hear Stefan Smart perform/recite St Mark’s Gospel. I hadn’t heard anything about this until my good friend Stuart (from our old days in Thame) sent me a facebook message.
Who’s Stefan Smart? Well, sadly, I’d never heard of him before Stuart contacted me… he’s a Christian, but he’s also an English teacher who works alongside Stuart (a Language teacher).
Stefan performed in the cathedral Nave in front of a good-sized audience (and to the amazement of some of the ‘usual’ cathedral visitors as they shuffled down the side aisles!).
It was a stunningly good morning.

I know St Mark’s Gospel pretty well, but I found the experience completely captivating… almost mesmerising (it lasted just over 90 minutes). The cathedral acoustics were perfect for Stefan’s rich tones and I found his ‘performance’ perfectly pitched – very well dramatised, but not over-acted (as I slightly feared!) and with imaginative, simple use of the single ‘prop’ (a set of steps) and the space available. A really impressive, stimulating and thought-provoking performance.
A pretty amazing feat and a wonderfully effective and appropriate prologue to Holy Week. So pleased I went!
PS: Although Stuart had sent me a message letting me know that Stefan was happy for me to take photographs of the performance, the cathedral has a large notice forbidding people to take photographs within the cathedral… at any time (which I think is absolutely barmy). In the circumstances, I didn’t want to cause any disruption, so decided to leave my camera in my bag. However, I did do a few VERY rapid scribbled sketchbook doodles (not really looking at the paper at all) – so, I’m afraid, that’s the best I can offer (see above)!!
PPS: On my way home, I was reflecting on Stefan Smart’s incredible achievement of memorising the entire Gospel of St Mark… and then remembered being in a nativity play at St Mary’s church, Thame (I had ‘volunteered’ to play one of the Kings and Stuart’s wife, Mary, somewhat predictably played the part of Mary)… I had six lines to learn (or was it four? I can’t remember!). My moment duly came and I began: “Oh Mary”… this was followed by one of the longest dramatic pauses in the entire history of nativity plays (possibly more than 30 seconds?) as I desperately tried to remember what came next…
Oh, how we laughed (eventually)! Needless to say, Stefan didn’t have ANY such moments. Oh the irony!

phil king: live at the folk house…

I’ve been pretty lax about posting on Phil King’s gig at the Folk House last weekend (through juggling other stuff, not because of any lack of enthusiasm!)… so here goes:
I first really came across Phil when he was part of the wonderful musical backdrop (alongside Benji and Will Bower) to Sally Cookson’s equally wonderful ‘Jane Eyre’ (at the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre)… which also featured a certain Mr Felix Hayes!
At that stage, I was very aware that Phil had a brilliant voice and played the guitar beautifully!! Since then, I’d been given a copy of his excellent CD ‘The Wreakage’ and seen him perform in the Colston Hall Foyer… and suddenly realised what a multi-talented singer-songwriter he is.
Last Saturday’s gig marked the launch of his new CD ‘Phil King Live’ (recorded at Bristol’s Wardrobe Theatre). I was already familiar with probably half of the songs… but his one-man performance last week underlined just how good he is – the quality of the songs… the voice… the musicianship (and he's a really nice bloke too!).
He’s got it all.
I’ve heard people describe him as a bit like a cross between Damien Rice and John Martyn. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with this, but also felt there were similarities with Ray LaMontagne (although Phil’s got a better voice!)… So, it was rather nice that (finding that the Folk House had its very own piano) he decided to sing a LaMontagne song (‘Burn’) just before the interval… and I’ve attached a link to the actual video of him performing it (hope he doesn’t mind me downloading it from his facebook page).
As you’ll see/hear, it was excellent… just like the rest of the brilliant evening.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

march 2017 books…

Cheltenham Square Murder (John Bude): Another John Bude/Inspector Meredith book from the British Library Crime Classics. Originally published in 1937, it follows the pattern of the other Bude books I’ve read – somewhat implausible, far-fetched crime scenario with a group of unlikely characters worthy of a game of ‘Cluedo’… and the rather late-in-the-day introduction of key facts that magically allow the mystery to be solved! Nevertheless, an enjoyable, easy-read, escapist novel.
How To Disappear Completely (Si Smith): This 64-page comic is one of my Lent books this year. Its author/artist, Si Smith, is a great mate of mine. It’s profound, harrowing, challenging, sad, uplifting, funny and hauntingly beautiful. It reflects on the realities of life and faith in modern-day Leeds: “there is beauty here, if you look for it…but it’s a thin line – love and hate and this city is an ugly place too, with its gaudy excesses… and this compulsion to consume and be consumed”. But you don’t need to have a faith to appreciate this gem… it contains messages for us all in today’s materialistic, greedy world. A really excellent book.
Cross Country Murder Song (Philip Wilding): I bought this book on a whim from the £3 Bookshop. I didn’t read the blurb on the book’s cover – as far as I was concerned it was something of an escapist crime novel. Well, this proved to be a bit of an understatement. It’s a complex, disturbing, hauntingly sinister book. A man “with a headful of secrets” and a difficult past takes a journey from New Jersey to California. On his trip he meets a host of weird (and frequently frightening and often pathetic) characters. Let’s just say that it reminded me of watching one of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns – when you lose count of the bodies in the first 5 minutes! It’s a strangely-compelling and very dark (with funny moments!).
The 12.30 From Croydon (Freeman Wills Crofts): Yet another crime novel (again from the British Library Crime Classics, first published in 1934)… my period of escapist, easy-reading continues! However, this is a somewhat unconventional crime story. It starts with a body but, almost immediately, we know who carried out the murder. The remainder of the book is seen from the criminal’s perspective – his ‘justification’ for the deed and his intricate plans to carry out the killing without leaving any traces. Will he get away with it? It’s a clever, unorthodox and very intriguing story.
Venice (Jan Morris): I bought the 1993 edition of this book (first published in 1960) in 1998. I’d never read it straight through until now (I’d previously read chunks of it, but only in a somewhat piecemeal fashion). Having re-read Morris’s “Oxford” book recently (and hugely enjoyed it again), I decided that the time had come for me to give ‘Venice’ proper consideration. Venice is probably my favourite city in the world. I think I’ve visited it four times – the first in 1968 (just two years after the great sea flood which made us fear for the city’s long-term survival) and the last time in 1997 (in celebration of our silver wedding anniversary). Morris is a simply brilliant writer and this is a truly stunning book – made all the better in the knowledge that, having lived in the city (and been a boat-owner), she’s able to get under its skin and reveal a very different picture of Venice. With her detailed descriptions and vivid prose (each page crammed full of history, engineering, art, culture, people and gossip!), she provides a COMPLETELY absorbing, factual and emotional evocation of this historic and captivating city. I think we need to return!