Wednesday, October 13, 2021

karine polwart in concert…

I went to see Karine Polwart in concert at St George’s tonight – my first concert for nearly two years. I first saw her at Greenbelt in 2005 and, apparently (according to my blog – which, essentially, I only keep as a memory-jogger!), have now seen her seven times.
It proved to be another wonderful evening. The last time I saw her was in 2018 and at that time I wrote: “Powerful, intelligent, thought-provoking, political, tender, poignant music at its very best. She’s an eloquent poet (and she’s frequently funny too). She’s a person who reminds you that small voices are important. She’s an inspiration.
At this time when so many of us are disenchanted by politics and what’s happening in the world, last night was a wonderful reminder that there ARE decent, inspiring people who demand to be heard.  
May it be so”.
I absolutely love her music and have come to realise over the years that, for me, Polwart is probably second only to Joni Mitchell in my list of favourite singer/songwriters. The evening was a mixture of new and old songs… and I found the older, familiar ones, in particular, very poignant (memory-joggers) and I even found myself feeling quite emotional at times (but, hey, that’s probably just me in my old age!).
The audience clearly loved her and, hopefully, she’ll be back in Bristol again very soon.
PS: The only negative aspect of the evening was that Iris wasn’t able to attend (it would have been her first ‘real’ concert); she’d had her first Covid jab the day before and spent today feeling on the verge of being physically sick and therefore, very reluctantly, decided she couldn’t leave home. Hopefully, we’ll be able to sort out another concert in the foreseeable future.
I was particularly sad about Iris missing the concert because I sense that Polwart – having studied politics and philosophy at university and being a strong advocate for women, the environment, climate change and the like – represents a potential role model for Iris… and we all need good role models in life!
Photo: Karine Polwart in concert tonight at St George’s. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

anthropcene: the human epoch + a short film about ice…

I went to the Watershed for the first time in 18 months (I know)!
The first film (2018, directed by Nicholas de PencierJennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky) focused on how human activities have made significant lasting and potentially irreversible changes to the Earth… from the devastated Great Barrier Reef in Australia, to the concrete seawalls that cover 60 percent of mainland China's coast, to the biggest terrestrial machines ever built in Germany, to psychedelic potash mines in Russia's Ural Mountains, to surreal lithium evaporation ponds in the Atacama Desert. From the harsh industrial landscapes of Siberia, to the towering white mountains of marble in Carrara, Italy, to the uneven plastic peaks of Dandora Landfill in Kenya, watch the aggressive extraction of the planet’s resources in astonishing scale and devastating beauty. Six continents and stunning (and sometimes quite chilling) images chronicling the catastrophic path travelled by our species over the last century.
Following 10 years of research, the Anthropocene Working Group now argue that we are now in a new geologic phase (the Anthropocene epoch) - a time when humans now change the Earth (in significant lasting and potentially irreversible ways) more than all the planet’s natural processes combined.
My gut feeling was that perhaps the film could have been broken down somewhat differently in terms of subject matter/’chapters’ but, nevertheless, it’s an impressive and powerful film.
The other film (directed by Hannah+Felix’s friend Adam Laity) was rather lovely – beautiful (and frequently devastating) images of fragile landscapes set alongside poetry and literary extracts.
PS: I have to say that I’d been feeling somewhat apprehensive about returning to my regular cinema venue as we begin to emerge from the pandemic (fingers crossed). The Watershed people had put in place a number of sensible safety measures... and these all worked well – apart from the people in the audience who weren’t wearing face-masks (“We will continue to expect everyone to wear a face covering whilst in the cinemas”). There were only some 25 people in the audience but at least half-a-dozen were mask-less. It made me feel very uncomfortable… and, yes, a bit vulnerable.

Monday, September 20, 2021

august-september 2021 books…

Many Different Kinds Of Love (Michael Rosen):
Rosen was ‘feeling unwell’ towards the end of March 2020… struggling to breathe. He was subsequently admitted to hospital, suffering from coronavirus. He ended up spending months on the wards – 6 weeks in an induced coma and many more weeks of rehab and recovery as the NHS saved his life. This is a beautiful, often harrowing, book of Rosen’s prose poems from that time… about love, life and the NHS. It underlines the severity of the virus (which obviously accounted for many lives), captures his struggles, the support from his amazing wife and family and, perhaps most of all, the moving coronavirus diaries of his nurses and doctors written when he was in his coma… personal messages from his nurses. Here’s just a brief extract from one of them (chosen at random) to give you a flavour: “Hi Michael. My name is Lizzie and I am your helper tonight. I’m normally a physio working in outpatients but I’m currently helping out in ITU during the Covid pandemic. I looked after you on one of your first nights, so it’s so lovely to see how far you’ve come… Thank you for all the lovely books and poems you have gifted us, ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ is one of my favourite childhood books! We have also laminated the poem you did for the NHS anniversary which is by your bed…”. I spent much of the first part of the book – which included these diary extracts – with tears in my eyes. Moving. Beautiful. A powerful celebration of the power of community and the importance of kindness in dark times.
The Old Man And The Sea (Ernest Hemingway): I read this book (first published in 1952) after watching a TV documentary about the author – I decided that I really SHOULD have read more Hemingway (this is just my third book of his). He writes beautifully. This is just a short novel (some 97 pages), but something of an acclaimed ‘masterwork’. 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 of 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.
All For Nothing (Walter Kempowski): This was our previous Storysmith bookgroup book. It’s set in rural East Prussia at the beginning of 1945. The Russian army is advancing and refugees are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands – in cars and carts and on foot. It focuses (at least at the start) on life in the run-down grandeur of the manor house where the wealthy von Globig family seals itself off from the world and make no preparations to leave until a decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing. It took me a little time to get into this book (perhaps 80 pages or so?), but I then became completely captivated by the struggle for survival. People, with next to nothing, needing to ‘up sticks’ at a moment’s notice and join the endless lines of others participating in a tragic exodus. Reading the book at a time when similar events are being enacted in Afghanistan RIGHT NOW as people try to flee from the Taliban ‘takeover’ of that country made the events described in the book even more powerful and pertinent. This, Kempowski’s last novel (first published in 2006, with Anthea Bell’s excellent translation published in 2015), is a beautiful, forgiving, compassionate book which manages to look beyond the futile divisions people make between themselves (whether they be Jew, Nazi, peasant, aristocrat, Pole or foreigner) – whether they be victims or perpetrators. A brilliant book.
Dear Bill (Richard Ingram+John Wells): In the course of moving house, my bedside pile of ‘to read’ books has been secreted into one of several cardboard boxes… unfortunately, it appears that it’s going to take some time for me to track them down! In the meantime, I came across this book (first published in 1980 in ‘Private Eye’) of fictitious “collected letters of Denis Thatcher” to his golfing friend and decided to re-read them. They are very, very funny… but also a stark reminder of those depressing days when Denis’s wife ruled the land. Sadly, not a lot has changed over the past 40 plus years!
The Hare With Amber Eyes (Edmund De Waal): This is our next Storysmith bookgroup book (based on a biography theme). Essentially, it tells of master potter De Waal’s researches about how he came to inherit a collection of 264 netsuke (miniature sculptures originating in 17th century Japan in fine-grained wood or ivory to “reward touch and endure wear”) from his great-uncle Iggie. It’s a fascinating and elegant book that traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of De Waal’s remarkable family from Odessa to Paris in the 1870s, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo… and to London. The story (certainly for the early part of the book) drips outrageous wealth, privilege, influence and ‘Jewishness’ (barely does a page go by without some reference to his Jewish ancestry). But, by the end of the book, De Waal acknowledges that he no longer knew quite what the book was about – his family or memory or himself… or “still a book about small Japanese things”. It’s an absolutely fascinating and brilliantly researched book (and De Waal writes quite beautifully). Although, at times, I found myself struggling to pick my way through its complex trail - it took me nearly three weeks to read (a long time for me, these days) – there were also times when I was transfixed by the horror of what the family had to endure from the end of the 1930s, right through to beyond the end of WW2 (of course, I knew about the atrocious treatment of Jews under the German (and Austrian) Reich and yet, reading accounts of what happened to De Waal’s family, brought home the true terror of man’s potential inhumanity towards his fellow man. In the end, De Waal won me over. It’ll be interesting what my bookgroup makes of it all.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

moving reflections…

I’m sitting on the balcony reading my book, a glass of white wine (I know!) in my hand, the sun slowly sinking towards the horizon and I think to myself: how lucky am I?! (A Louis Armstrong song comes to mind!).

It’s just over a week since we moved to the city centre and although it’s been stressful at times (I wouldn’t want to repeat it any time soon!), we’ve been remarkably fortunate that everything has worked out pretty well.
Living in the heart of the city comes with both positives and negatives (and we knew that before we even contemplated moving).

On the negative side: it’s much noisier and I’ve become almost blasé about hearing people making their way home at 3am – and always, it seems, with the volume turned ‘up’… laughing, arguing, shouting or, in one case, growling (a man attempting to perfect his loud growls in the middle of the night – something I personally don’t recall ever doing!). There seems to be strong desire for some motorbikers (always male) to ‘rev up’ furiously for absolutely no reason other than trying to attract people’s stares. Our apartment’s development (there are some 165 units scattered around the site) seems sadly lacking when it comes to recycling – it almost feels as if we’ve slipped back 20 years: there is a line of big rubbish bins in basement, but just differentiated into ‘paper+cardboard’ (mixed) and ‘everything else’… allowance for the recycling of plastic, glass, or tins (I accept that food waste might also be difficult, but absolutely nothing on that front either). I think we might be challenging this state of affairs over the coming weeks! And, of course, we also know we’ll miss our local Southville community and all the independent shops and businesses (but hey, they’re less than 30 minutes away).

But on the positive side, we have the harbour a four minute walk away from our front door; we have access to buses to ‘everywhere’ (with bus stops all within a 5 minute walk); we’re in easy walking access to so many places (Old Vic, RWA, Temple Meads station, Royal Fort Gardens, Queen Square, Watershed, St George’s, Cathedral, College Green, Saint Stephen’s church, Brandon Hill). I love waking up in the very centre of the city and also walking out of the front door and feeling ‘in the heart of the action’ (me? action?!).

Downsizing has been pretty challenging (and continues to be so). Friends, who have also recently moved, have told us that, even though we THOUGHT we’d downsized, we’ll have to continue the process once we’ve moved (and they’re SO right!). Our kitchen at Mount Pleasant Terrace worked brilliantly and so adapting to our ‘new’, smaller version is going to be very difficult (and will take some time to get it ‘right’). Both of our bedrooms are currently stacked around the perimeter with a multitude of large plastic boxes… the living room still has something like 37 boxes of books awaiting a home (ie. but we need to build shelving first!). There are DOZENS of pictures we ‘need’ to get hung. There are walls to re-decorate. Curtains/blinds to be hung. There are electrical alterations needed. There’s a new carpet to be ordered… oh, and a new dining table and armchairs… and additional wardrobe space. I could go on… and on.

In the meantime, we’re constantly wondering where we put things… Which unopened box? Which corner of what cupboard?
But that’s fine… we knew it would be like that. So, when it all gets a little too much, we simply wander out on to the balcony with a glass of wine and turn our backs on the chaos… and also acknowledge how lucky we are to have what we have (and each other).
Photo: view from the balcony looking at the development’s garden area (in the distance). 

Friday, August 20, 2021

goodbye arts trail at number40…

One of the saddest aspects of moving house is the realisation that we’ve held our last SouthBank Arts Trail at number40. We’ve opened up our studio on every arts trail weekend from 2004-2018 (we ‘missed’ the very first one in May 2003, which took place the day we put in an offer for the house!).
Over the years, Moira and I have welcomed the following 40 exhibiting artists (which somehow feels absolutely appropriate for number40!): Paul Brown, Wendy Calder, Jen Orme, Helen Brayshaw, Sharon Bishop, Dave Morgan-Davies, Chitra Merchant, Philippa Royle, Angela Saxbee, Hannah Hickman, Sarah Duncan, Anna Francis, Kay Morgan, Alexandra Higlett, Georgina Hounsome, Lucy Roberts, Tamsie Beith, Ruth Ander, Fay-Darling Peters, Maggie Smith, Martin Lintern, Damian Daly, Lucie Sheridan, Becky Burling, Melanie Wickham, Tessa McDermott, Shirley Smith, Deb Steele, Sally Medlicott, Ian Adams, Heather Newport, Chris Heaton, Nik Kalinowski, Jeremy Smith, Iain Ferns, the Plate-Painting-Lady (who joined us at the eleventh hour for one of our exhibitions, but we can’t remember her name!) plus, of course, the lovely Ruth Broadway, Hannah Broadway, Stuart Low and Felix Hayes.
It proved to be a very popular arts trail venue – so much so that we ended up welcoming over 700 people into our basement over an Arts Trail weekend!
Huge thanks to all those who contributed or visited over the years.
Lots of special memories.
Lots of very good times with lots of very good friends. x
Photos: These are just a very FEW of the photographs taken over the years… fascinating to see the broad scope of work included and also being reminded that our grandchildren have effectively ‘grown up’ over the course of our arts trail involvement!

Saturday, August 07, 2021

july-august 2021 books...

Tales From Lindford (Catherine Fox):
This is the fourth Catherine Fox book I’ve read over the past six years or so (Moira originally introduced me to her stuff). As with the previous books, it’s based in the fictional diocese of Lindchester and, once again, follows some of its beloved characters. It was originally written in real time (more or less) in the form of a weekly blog in the midst of the pandemic and captures the huge difficulties and challenges of 2020… starting with everyone celebrating the New Year with parties and resolutions and with “none of them aware of the trials and tribulations the coming months will bring – not least the horseman of the apocalypse who has set out quietly, with barely a jingle of harness, in a distance province of China”. Fox is a wonderful writer and she manages to convey the uncertainties of the incredibly challenging year with heart, humour and insight… as well as providing us with a compelling, powerful reminder of what we’ve all been through (and are still going through!) Ridiculously perhaps, she has the ability to make you laugh and cry, but also leave you with hope and a reminder of the goodness of people, even in the darkest times. I also love her political ‘digs’, such as this: “The Rule of Six kicks in this Monday. Gatherings of more than six (including babies and children) are banned, with the exception of schools and workplaces. Oh, and grouse shooting. If I were making all this up, I wouldn’t have risked that last detail, for fear my readers would never swallow such a clunky bit of social satire. But there we are.” Brilliant!
Just Ignore Him (Alan Davies): This is a memoir in which comedian/actor Davies confronts his past. It’s a difficult, brave but compelling read – with tender recollections of his mother (who died from leukaemia when he just six); about how he and his siblings weren’t told about her death (and decisions taken by the family not even to tell her that she was dying) but, even brutally, how Davies was sexually-abused (from when he was 8 until he was 13) by his domineering, controlling father (and sworn to secrecy). Although it contains patches of black-humour, it’s a difficult, painful read (although I easily read it within 3 days). Davies is at pains to emphasise that he didn’t write the book for himself as an ‘exercise in healing’… instead, for me, I think the very final paragraph of the last chapter sums up why I think you should read the book: “Above all, I have set out to tell you the things you don’t know about me, in the hope that one day, perhaps, you will feel able to tell someone what they don’t know about you.”
Instructions For A Heatwave (Maggie O’Farrell): I first read this book in 2013. I’ve read three O’Farrell books in total and loved each one of them. In her note at the end of the book, she refers to how the book came about and makes reference to the heatwave summer of 1976 (which is very significant for me as daughter Ru was born in the spring of that year!). She talks about how the heatwave had played an “important role in Britain’s collective memory of itself”… and it struck me that people would almost certainly be referring to the pandemic year of 2020 in a similar way in due course… AND I re-read it this year in a heatwave!! The book tells of a retired father of a complicated Irish family, living in London, who mysteriously disappears one morning… and follows his wife’s and his grown-up children’s actions to track him down. I was somewhat shocked at just how little of the book’s detail I’d retained (I recalled the basic premise, but the characters were far more real this time). I really enjoyed the book (even more so than last time); I love O’Farrell’s writing style, her characters and her ability to tell a good story.
Started Early, Took My Dog (Kate Atkinson): This (published in 2010) represents my last book to complete Atkinson’s excellent ‘Jackson Bride’ series (which, of course, I read slightly out of order!). Perhaps (even) darker than the other books in series… it deals with the bleak world of ‘lost’ women (and children – Madeleine McCann springs to mind); with the greed and power of men; with prostitutes; with ‘druggies’; and with thieves. Semi-retired private investigator Brodie is asked to try to track down the birth parents of a woman now living in New Zealand but, in the process (and in typical Atkinson fashion) his task is frequently overtaken by events - from both the present day and those from long-buried crimes of the 1970s – affecting the other ‘main players’ in the story. Once again (despite the bleakness of the plot), I found Atkinson’s dialogue and rhetorical whimsy wonderfully funny, poignant and appealing.    
Love (Roddy Doyle): This novel starts with two men meeting up in a Dublin restaurant. They’re old friends from schooldays (they’re now in their late 50s or early 60s perhaps); they’re both married and with grown-up children; their lives seem to have taken quite similar paths (albeit that one of them now lives in England). They start drinking… two pints turns to three, then five, then… as they set out on a journey to revisit the haunts of their youth. I like Roddy Doyle’s writing (his gift for dialogue is exceptional), but after 250 pages of this 300+ page book, I got very close to giving up in frustration! It was SO slow and SO repetitive! At times it felt like reading extracts from those old Ronnie Corbett sketches of shaggy dog stories – where Corbett was constantly finding himself waylaid as he meandered down completely irrelevant and obscure pathways! One of the men talked far more than the other (the quieter one becoming annoyed and frustrated in the process – because HE had important stuff to say too). The f-word is probably used twenty times on every single page (and probably more than that as the beer consumption mounts)… but THEN there’s the big reveal (*no spoilers* - so no details) and, it’s then, that the friendship’s true worth comes to the fore. It’s a very powerful ending – both thought-provoking and, for me, memory-provoking. I just wish that perhaps 100 pages of dialogue could have been omitted. 

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

june-july 2021 books…

When Will There Be Good News? (Kate Atkinson): My Atkinson reading festival continues! This is the third book in the ‘Jackson Brodie’ crime fiction series (although not a detective novel in the formal sense) and, once again, I absolutely loved it. Intelligent, funny, wonderful characters and enthralling plot. A six-year-old girl witnesses an appalling crime; 30 years later the man convicted of the crime is released from prison… I don’t want to spoil things for you, so I’ll leave it there. Having persuaded my Storysmith bookgroup to opt for Atkinson’s ‘Big Sky’ Brodie tale (a book I first read in January this year) for its next book (based on a ‘crime’ theme), I now need to start re-reading it in preparation for our next ‘session’.
Bloomsbury: A House Of Lions (Leon Edel): This book provides a detailed and fascinating portrait of the nine key individuals who comprised the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, namely: Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Desmond McCarthy, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. American author Edel is clearly a very gifted biographer and the book is extensively researched (and in fact he’d previously met a number of the principle players or their relatives and published the book in 1979, when he himself was 72). At times, I felt that Edel was simply ‘showing off’ (too excessively for my taste) his extensive knowledge of his subject. I thought that he was overly condescending towards the privileged life of Cambridge upper-class undergraduates (all male, of course!) in the early years of the 20th century and that he adopted a rather condescending view of women in general (even including Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell to some extent). Although I had previously read a number of books about Bloomsbury, this book provided fascinating additional background. An excellent book.  
Vanessa Bell: Portrait Of The Bloomsbury Artist (Frances Spalding): I absolutely loved this excellent biography (first published in 1983 and re-published in 2016). Yes, I appreciate that I’ve probably become excessively absorbed in Bloomsbury-related stuff over recent years (especially reading two lengthy, detailed volumes in the past month!), but it’s been a compelling journey. I’d been particularly drawn to the paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and this book provided fascinating insights into the work and lives of both of them (and the Bloomsbury group). Bell became something of a mother figure for the whole group and a catalyst for much of what the group came to represent. She walked an emotional tightrope in her relationships with her husband (Clive Bell), ex-lover (Roger Fry) and lover (Duncan Grant) and enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle of sexual freedom, fierce independence and honesty. As a painter, Bell was as radical as her sister Virginia Woolf the writer (Woolf described Bell as ‘the Saint’ for her practical sense of duty and organisation). The book has been compiled from letters and diaries (without letters, how much would have been lost!). It’s full of amusing and intriguing details: for instance, she wasn’t particularly political (although more left-wing than her husband)… and once asked the man sitting next to her at dinner if he was interested in politics… the man in question was prime minister Asquith(!); in 1925, after the lease on their Charleston house had been renewed, she had a studio added (“compared with the domestic proportions elsewhere in the house, this huge vaulted room offers both expanse and haven-like peace”)… the builder’s estimate was £250! A wonderful, intriguing biography.
The Leopard (Tomasi Di Lampedusa): The writer (1896-1957) was the last Prince of Lampedusa and the novel was published posthumously in 1958. It’s set in the spring of 1860 at a time when Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, still ruled over Sicily - albeit in “decadent and impoverished aristocracy, deaf to the upheavals of the world” (as I’ve seen one reviewer describe things)… but then Garibaldi landed in Sicily and the Prince had to decide whether to resist the forces of change or come to terms with them. It’s a renowned, highly-praised book with an impressive sense of long gone glory and an elegance of language but, I’m afraid, I really struggled to come to terms with it. Apparently, there’s a 1963 film of the book and perhaps, if I saw it, it might make me want to re-read the book. Not one of my favourite books of the year. Sorry.
Broken Greek (Pete Paphides): Moira recommended this (published in 2020). I’d never heard of the writer (apparently he’s had a career in music journalism… and he’s also married to Caitlin Moran). Although he’s 20 years younger than me, we share the fact that we both grew up in Birmingham. His parents moved from Cyprus to Brum in the 1960s in the hope of a better life (with no money and very little English) and opened a fish-and-chip shop in Acocks Green. Shy and introverted, Paphides stopped speaking from age 4 to 7, but he ended up ‘discovering’ pop music (‘Top of the Pops’, ‘Dial-a-Disc’) – which provided him with the safety net he needed to protect him from the tensions of his home life. It’s a long book (582 pages!)… which, in fact, only covers his life up to the age of 13 (so there might be more to come?). Paphides was (and probably still is) passionate about music and, even from an early age, spent all his pocket money on records. He’s a natural story-teller and I found his recollections of Brum (complete with doing an entire circuit of the number 11 bus route – just like my grandmother used to do!) and the trials and tribulations of growing up absolutely captivating. For me, it contained just a little too many musical insights and details (fascinating though they were), but this is a really very lovely book: tender, funny and overflowing in musical trivia and knowledge. I highly recommend it.
PS: I also re-read Kate Atkinson's 'Big Sky' this month (it's our Storysmith bookgroup's latest book).