Thursday, March 23, 2023

march 2023 books…

Consolations (David Whyte): Having recently read Whyte’s “Essentials”, I decided to read this earlier book of his (published in 2019). He describes it as “the solace, nourishment and underlying meaning of everyday words” and the book consists of a series of mini-essays on these words (52 of them – with one word titles such as: ‘Anger’, ‘Denial’, ‘Memory’ and ‘Regret’). I read two of them out loud to myself very early each morning… and found that they provided a wonderful start to the structure and rhythm of the new day. I found it a powerful, thought-provoking, very beautiful book. I know I’ll keep ‘dipping into it’ over the coming years.
The Instant (Amy Liptrot): I was hugely impressed by Liptrot’s first book (“The Outrun”) – in which the then 30 year-old author finds herself ‘washed up’ back home on Orkney after a previous ten years had seen her leaving the island, ending up in London and started a downward spiral of hellish alcohol addiction. I thought it was an incredibly brave, eloquent and hopeful book… and was intrigued to discover what she came up with for her follow-up book. She ends up leaving the isolation of Orkney Island and books a one-way flight to Berlin on a whim… looking for new challenges, work, love (and sex!) via the screen on her phone. She ends up staying in Berlin for a year… encountering the city’s wildlife, tracing cycles of the moon, the flight paths of migratory birds and “surrendering to the addictive power of love and lust”. She ends up falling passionately in love with a German man (and her feelings are duly reciprocated). Life is magically wonderful and, then, with no warning he leaves her… and she is utterly devastated. The second half of the book is something of a manic appraisal of what went wrong and how and why… which, for me, I found a little tiresome at times (who me?). Having said that, I thought it was a brutally honest and poignant account of connection and disconnection in the digital age. *Spoiler Alert*: the epilogue, written 4 years later, finds her with a new partner and her baby… and with the ability to reflect on the healing that has taken place after all the hurt.
The Old Man And The Sea (Ernest Hemingway): This is our next Blokes’ Book… I first read it (published in 1952) a couple of years ago after watching a TV documentary about the author. It tells the story of an old Cuban fisherman; life has rather worn him down and yet he still dreams. Lately, the old man has endured 84 days without a catch (and much ridicule among his fellow fishermen)… but, today, will be HIS day. He eventually, single-handedly, catches an enormous fish (‘18ft from nose to tail’) but, in bringing home his trophy (tied to the side of his old skiff) numerous sharks attack and feast on the fish’s flesh – leaving him with just the skeleton of his ‘catch’ to bear witness to his exploits. He ends up winning the battle, but losing the prize. Poignant, powerful and profound.
The Driver’s Seat (Muriel Spark): Reading Spark’s “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” last month made me realise that I’d not previously read any other of her books (and we have a number on our bookshelves!)… so I felt I had some catching up to do. This short novel (published in 1970) is something of a psychological thriller - by the third chapter, it’s revealed that the principal character, 36 year-old Lise, will be murdered. Lise has been driven to distraction by working in the same accountants' office for sixteen years and so decides to leave everything behind her and transforms herself into a laughing, garishly-dressed temptress and flies abroad on the holiday of a lifetime (it’s eventually revealed that she’s suffered years of illness; she behaves erratically and often confrontationally, and wears garish clothing). But her search for adventure, sex and new experiences takes on a far darker significance as she flies off on a journey of self-destruction, ostensibly to meet her illusory boyfriend. Spark’s writing is quite brilliant – sparse and compelling – and captures what I suppose could be described as the “extravagant madness” of the woman hugely effectively. Impressive.
A Murder Of Quality (John Le Carré): Published in 1962 (Le Carré’s second novel), this is a George Smiley murder investigation… apparently, it’s Le Carré’s only Smiley book set outside the espionage community. It’s set in a public school “one of the Great Schools… where the rich send their sons to be instructed”. The wife of one of the school’s junior masters writes to the editor of the small ‘Christian Voice’ newspaper asking for help because she fears her husband intends to kill her. The concerned editor consults her former colleague from the war-time secret service, the retired agent George Smiley… but, of course, by this time, the woman has indeed been murdered. It’s a short novel focussing on the post-Second World War class divisions and the big gap between the Town and Gown which seems to prevent the police investigating the murder fully. The recently-retired Smiley offers to help out by making his own discreet enquiries. I enjoyed it… predictably clever and intriguing! 

Monday, March 20, 2023

metropolitan orchestra at st george’s (again)…

My week of culture continued last night when I went along to St George’s, Bristol again – this time to see/hear Bristol’s impressive Metropolitan Orchestra. My great friend Ed plays the horn… he’s third from the left in the back-but-one row in the photograph (click on the image to enlarge).
Always lovely to hear a full orchestra in good ‘voice’… SO impressive.
Of course, with an orchestra of some 60 players, they can almost guarantee that each player will bring along a couple of guests… which, in turn, more or less ensures of full house (which it was).
Last night’s programme included: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 (not my favourite Tchaikovsky symphony, but hey); Mozart’s Flute Concerto; Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau);
and Dani Howard’s Argentum.
A really lovely evening.
Photo: the orchestra from my ‘usual’ seat in the gallery. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

three cane whale at st george’s (again)…

Last night, I went to the Three Cane Whale concert at St George’s, Bristol. I think I’ve seen them/Paul Bradley perhaps ten times over the past 10 years. They really are an extraordinary, ridiculously-talented group of musicians (and very nice blokes too).
They often like to associate their music with ‘Place’ and have recorded a number of their pieces ‘on location’ – in barns, old chapels, on hillsides and even next to main roads (A303 being one example!).
The three musicians (Alex Vann, Pete Judge and Paul Bradley) play an incredible, eclectic range of instruments – last night, I counted thirteen of them!!
I first came across the band in December 2013 when I was part of a pop-up Christmas shop at The Architecture Centre here in Bristol… heard their (beautiful) song “Sluice” and listed it in my top music of the year blog reflections. Within a matter of minutes of posting my list, my lovely friend Mark Louden had posted the following message: “So glad you like Three Cane Whale. My dear old friend Paul Bradley is one of the three. You should listen to the amazing Bristol Kitchen Radio podcast which he and his fabulous wife Ellen Hughes do from their house in Redlands. Always featured an improvised song or two from Paul”.
Mark, his wife Ellen, Moira and I were part of our ‘Foundation’ church community at the time. Last night’s concert was the first Three Cane Whale concert I’ve attended since Mark’s sad death a couple of years ago. I duly raised my glass to them last night. Special memories, special man. I chatted briefly to Paul at the end of the concert and he pointed out that his and Mark’s friendship went back to 1979.
Last night’s concert – in the perfect venue - was quite exceptional… brilliant, beautiful, intricate, uplifting and joyful.
Photo: from last night’s concert.
PS: This YouTube clip gives a flavour of their music.
PPS: Last night’s support band, ‘Firelight Trio’, were also excellent… my one criticism was that they went on for perhaps two songs too long! 

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

lunana: a yak in the classroom…

After seeing a trailer for this film at the Watershed last week, I decided that it might be the perfect antidote to the somewhat depressing ‘goings-on’ in the world at the present time.
Pawo Choyning Dorji’s film “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is about a disillusioned teacher in his final fifth year of mandatory government service who is sent to a remote Himalayan school (an eight-day hike from the nearest bus stop). 
Aspiring musician Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) has one eye on a new life in Australia. In his teaching role, he has distinguished himself with his lack of motivation and little else. To his surprise, he ends up engaging with tradition, yaks and a class full of bright-eyed, keen pupils. The villages tell him that being a teacher is a wonderful thing “because a teacher touches the future” (perhaps someone should tell the UK government?).
It’s a ridiculously heartwarming, staggeringly photogenic film… yes, unashamedly sentimental, but absolutely perfect (for me) and I loved it.
I think you should treat yourself!
PS: This from a recent article in TheGuardian (big thanks to Sarah for highlighting): “One standout performance is from a nine-year-old village girl, Pem Zam. In life, as in the film, she is the daughter of an alcoholic father, raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death”. The film’s director was determined to save her from the usual fate of local children, which was to quit school at 11 or 12 to become yak herders. Pem Zam, who is now a teenager, was recently accepted by one of Bhutan’s most prestigious schools.


Friday, March 10, 2023

february-march 2023 books…

The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida (Shehan Karunatilaka): Right, this is a FIRST. Once I’ve started a book, I ALWAYS finish it… but I’m afraid that, this time (despite the fact that the book only went and won the 2022 Booker Prize, for goodness sake!!), I gave up. The book is set amid the murderous mayhem of the civil war in Sri Lanka, 1990. Maali Ameida, war photographer, has woken up dead and his dismembered body is sinking into a lake and he has no idea how he died. In the afterlife, he has seven moons to try to contact his beloved friends and lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock the country. It’s quite a long book and simply broken down into seven sections (one for each moon)… I yearned for short(ish) chapters to help digest what I was reading. It’s an energetic and hugely imaginative satire but, frankly, it was all too much for me (perhaps just beyond me intellectually?) and I gave up after the first moon (84 pages), feeling somewhat confused, bewildered and something of a failure!
Essentials (David Whyte): Alice gave me this book of poetry+words (she thought that if I liked Mary Oliver, then I’d like David Whyte – and how right she was!) and I’ve been slowly working my way through it, reading 2 or 3 poems each morning (out loud… to myself!). I’d not previously come across Whyte’s work, but his voice has really resonated with me. He’s an Anglo-Irish poet and we’re of a similar age (ok, well, he’s 7 years younger!) and, I think, we share a similar philosophy of life. I loved his poetry and his words… and also that the book included brief comments about the context/background of how he came to write each of the pieces. I loved it… and have ordered another book of his (‘Consolation’) to continue the exploration.
Glory (NoViolet Bulawayo): The author, NoViolet Bulawayo (I just LOVE her name!), grew up in Zimbabwe. Apparently, she first attempted to write about Zimbabwe’s November 2017 coup and the fall of Robert Mugabe in nonfiction, but ended up deciding to go down the political satire route – hence this book. Inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘Glory’ is set in the animal kingdom of Jidada. After a 40-year rule, the “Old Horse” is ousted in a coup, along with his much-despised wife, a donkey named Marvellous. At first there is great rejoicing and hope for change under a new ruling horse (the former vice-president turned rival of Old Horse). But hope soon vanishes and into the period of post-coup despair steps a young goat named Destiny, who returns from exile to bear witness to a land where greed, corruption and false prophets are rampant. It took me some time to get properly ‘into’ this book (it’s 400 pages long)(shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022) but, once I’d done so, I found it incredibly powerful and quite brilliant.
Animal Farm (George Orwell): I first read this book (first published 1945) ages ago - long before I ever blogged ‘reviews’ – but, after reading ‘Glory’, I thought it was time for a re-read. You’re probably well aware of the story: a farm is taken over by its overworked, mistreated animals. With fiery idealism and stirring slogans, they set out to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality. This wonderful, satirical book (now nearly 80 years old) records the evolution from revolution against tyranny and, in turn, the devastating converse. The book includes the famous words: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Times might have changed, but the message is still powerfully fresh. Quite brilliant.
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark): This is our latest Storysmith book group book (the theme is a non-English British book!). Published in 1961 and set, initially, in the early 1930s, it recounts the exploits of an unconventional, maverick schoolmistress and her free-thinking ideas at a time when the schoolmistress, Jean Brodie, described herself as being in her “prime”. At first, her mysterious glamour and charm dazzle and seduce her girls (they were a set of six: Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice) – “the crème de la crème” – at an Edinburgh school. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” she boasts, “and she is mine for life.” Throughout this time the Headmistress is endeavouring to force Miss Brodie out of the school (because of her unconventional teaching methods and attitudes), but Miss Brodie remains defiant. The set remained together under Miss Brodie during their early teenage years but, gradually, the sense of obsession and obedience begins to fade as the girls mature and, ultimately end in her downfall/betrayal. I can’t quite believe I’ve not read it before now (and only seen snippets of the film)… but I thought it was rather wonderful. Beautifully-written, very funny but also poignant and intriguing. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2023


I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film “Broker”. It’s set in Korea and inspired by the Korean phenomenon of ‘baby boxes’ put out by churches for unwanted newborns (I’d never heard about these ‘baby boxes’ before seeing the film). Korean actor Song Kang-ho plays a volunteer at a local church that has one of these boxes -  but, in reality, he is running a ‘broker’ scam: occasionally he steals a newborn for himself – erasing the church’s CCTV footage that prove a baby was left there – and offers it for sale on the adoption black market, with potential couples lined up by his partner.
Everything falls apart when one of the mothers named, played by Lee-Ji-eun, returns to the church to get her baby back, stumbling onto the operation. Detectives are also on the case… it’s complicated, but I’ll leave it there.
Somewhat surprisingly(?), the film turns out to be something of a ‘feel good’ road movie –
featuring two lovable, flawed men who are apparently romantics at heart.
The Watershed’s blurb describes it as “heartwarming, funny and moving; a film of gentle humanity and great warmth”. However, the Guardian’s critic, Peter Bradshaw, has a slightly different view and sums it up thus (in his 2-star review): “A sudsy road-movie heartwarmer set in Korea… fundamentally silly, with tiringly shallow characterisation and broad streaks of crime-drama intrigue, which only underline the fact that not a single word of it is really believable”!
Actually, while I usually rate Bradshaw’s opinions very highly but, on this occasion, I think his verdict is somewhat harsh. I found the film very watchable and I warmed to the characters (despite their flaws). Yes, a difficult subject and, yes, the plot is somewhat far-fetched and, yes, the two blokes were trying to earn money for crimes which involved black market adoptions of newborn infants… but I enjoyed the lighter moments (and there were several).
I actually thought it was very enjoyable and quite charming… sorry Peter!

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

citizen ethics in a time of crisis…

While searching through what we laughingly refer to as our filing system (somewhat predictably, I was unable to trace the actual document I was seeking!), I came across a quite brilliant supplement entitled ‘Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis’. It was published in 2010, exactly 13 years ago this week, by the Guardian newspaper (in conjunction with Citizens Ethics Network, Barrow Cadbury and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust). In it, a number of prominent thinkers – philosophers, politicians, economists, theologians and writers – considered how the financial and political events of the previous year (ie. the sense of outrage following such matters as the Banking crisis, Bankers’ bonuses and the MPs’ expenses scandal) had given rise to a crisis of ethics… although it’s interesting that the document relates to “Citizen Ethics” (not politicians’ ethics).
I was so taken by the document that I’d sent away for a copy of 60-page bound version.
I’ve been re-reading much of it this morning and it makes for fascinating reflection… especially at this time of a ‘Cost of Living Crisis’, an ‘Energy Crisis’, attitudes towards migration (and refugees) – not to mention (but I will) the dishonesty/lack of integrity of some senior politicians; allegations of sexual misconduct against dozens of MPs; allegations of ‘irregular’ PPE funding during the pandemic, Brexit, Climate Crisis… actually, the list goes on and on).
It speaks about how self-interest and calculation have derailed our values.
The document’s articles asked some crucial questions (dozens and dozens of them) – that are JUST as relevant today as they were 13 years ago. Here are just a few examples:
  • Do we leave it to the market to distribute riches or must the state intervene to ensure more justice than market mechanisms have achieved over the last 25 years?
  • We have looked into the abyss where individualism is concerned and we know it won’t do.
  • We have lacked a language to respond. How are we to articulate our misgivings? How can we regain our ability to reason ethically?
  • It is not a manifesto, it is an argument we have left derelict, a crucial public concern.
  • We need a public life with a purpose.
  • A promising measure would be to grant all adults a basic income, leaving it to them to decide how to work. This would make part-time work viable for many.
  • Shareholder value is shorthand for doing whatever it takes to pump up the stock price.
  • What human beings most desire is not material wealth, but social recognition.
  • That the economy should meet human needs means we have to focus on needs, not wants.
  • London and Westminster, the twin epicentres of power, feel as rotten as Rome under Caligula.
  • Politics must come from the people.
  • The ethical human being has a need for meaning in order to sustain a sense of aspiration.
How little has changed in the past 13 years… and, sadly, I suspect things won’t change in my lifetime.