Wednesday, May 18, 2022

steeleye span…

I went along to St George’s last night to see the Folk Revival band Steeleye Span. They were established in late 1969, when London-born bass player Ashley Hutchings departed Fairport Convention (another of my favourites) - the band he had co-founded in 1967. The marvellous Maddy Prior is the only surviving member of the original band.
They’re currently on their 50th Anniversary Tour (somewhat disrupted/delayed by Covid – some people had bought tickets for this concert 3 years ago!) so, as you might imagine, the vast majority of the enthusiastic audience were ‘seniors’ like me (understatement)! The band still makes a great sound.
Maddy Prior can STILL sing wonderfully well (albeit her voice is somewhat deeper these days) and the very impressive singer/violinist, Jessie May Smart, was able to fill in on those old high notes (eg ‘Gaudette’)!
It proved to be a brilliant evening – hugely enjoyable.
Photo: on stage at St George’s last night. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022


I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Gaspar Noé’s film “Vortex” about the struggles of an elderly couple (born in 1940 and 1944 respectively) in declining health.
Given that Moira and I are ourselves in the ‘elderly couple’ category and facing the uncertainties of old age, I thought long and hard before deciding to book my ticket – but I’m so pleased that I did.
The film's old couple are former intellectuals: he’s an author/film-maker and she's a retired psychiatrist. They live a somewhat bohemian, chaotic life in their small Parisian house crammed full of books and clutter. He is lucid but restricted by a heart condition (he’d had a stroke) and spends a lot of time coughing in the film(!); she also had a stroke some years ago and is now suffering from rapidly worsening dementia. They attempt to deal with matters, alongside their adult son, who is himself is dealing with significant personal problems. The entire film is shot in split-screen – which seems to emphasise their dual stories. The actors (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun) are stunningly good – it feels as if you’re watching a documentary in real time.
It makes for tough viewing…
It’s a reminder of how easy it is to retreat into our own individual worlds and to put off painful, necessary decisions… of the importance of acknowledging the ageing process and the changes it makes to even the best relationships… of the realisation that even basic day-to-day tasks can become difficult or even forgotten (medication, turning off the hob/oven/shower, dressing/undressing)… of how vulnerable people become (being no longer able to shop for themselves or even able to leave a partner alone at home)…
It’s a film about the chaotic life and all the messy disarray that old age can become for so many of us… things being left undone, decisions being put off.
It’s an incredibly powerful film – stark, but with moments of tenderness.
Before you know it, it’ll happen to you…
At the start of the film, the couple enjoy a modest meal on their rickety terrace – a simple, happy moment which turns out to be one of her last moments of lucidity.
Towards the end of the film, there’s a slideshow of photographs from the wife’s life – her childhood, her beauty as she becomes a woman, her love of life, her love of her husband and son – reminders of a life lived to the full and celebrated. I found it a very telling and poignant reflection (which made me smile).
And at the very end of the film, there’s a slideshow of photographs showing the couple’s house being cleared – emptied of books and clutter – and finally left bare. A stark, poignant and fitting end.
I think I watched the film with perhaps eight other people. I was, by far, the oldest in the audience – the rest were either twenty-somethings or maybe forty-somethings. For me, it was the reality of my old age but, for them, it was about the old age of their grandparents or parents.
A truly brilliant film.
Footnote: Throughout the film, there’s an element of denial and I suspect that’s the case for many of us approaching (or, like us, in!) old age. The couple in the film vowed that they never wanted to leave their home (largely thanks to Moira, we downsized some nine months ago – and, in retrospect, what a brilliant decision that was!)(and our three daughters wholeheartedly agree!). For couples fortunate enough to survive into old age together, there are the inevitable questions of: Who will die first? Who will take on the burden of care? But also, I suspect, there’s a need to re-assess things on a very regular basis and to make the necessary adjustments accordingly (some easier than others). Patience, sense of humour and love seem to be the key. x 

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

royal west of england academy (RWA)…

The Grade II* Listed RWA building has opened its doors again after a £4.1 million extensive repair and refurbishment project – thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Since we first moved to Bristol in 2003, we’ve regularly visited the art gallery and, as you might imagine (with it being only a 15-minute walk up Park Street from our ‘new’ abode), it’s been somewhat frustrating that its temporary closure more or less coincided with our move from Southville.
The art gallery re-opened at the weekend and I dropped in yesterday to take in its first main exhibition (“Me, Myself, I: Artists’ Self-Portraits” - an exploration of self-portraiture over the last three hundred years), featuring such artists as Antony Gormley, Gillian Wearing, Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin, Joshua Reynolds, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud, Patrick Heron, Dod Procter, John Minton, Roger Fry and many more.
I very much enjoyed it and, thanks to my RWA Art Pass (purchased for an annual fee of £15 – brilliant value), I can visit as many times as I like for ‘free’.
Photo: Just a few of the images that caught my eye (clockwise, starting top left: John Minton; Antony Gormley, Stanley Spencer, Michael Craig-Martin, Dod Procter, Roger Fry, Arthur Hayward and Jacqueline Donachie.
PS: Work on the café isn’t quite yet completed, but the very good news is that it’ll be run by Bristol’s excellent “Spicer+Cole” (probably the best coffee in Bristol, in my view).

Saturday, April 30, 2022

cricket, lovely cricket…

I went to watch a day’s cricket in Bristol yesterday (Gloucestershire v league-leaders Surrey). It was the first county championship game I’d seen for two-and-a-half years (since September 2019, at Taunton) and I’ve really missed it. It’s a great shame, in my view, that season tickets aren’t available for people like me who enjoy watching just the county games (although the Twenty-20 and one-day games provide entertainment, I’m one of those old fogies who don’t think it’s ‘proper cricket’!).
Ridiculously, not bothering to purchase an online ticket in advance, I arrived 45 minutes before the start of play, proffered my bank card at the ‘gate’ for ‘swiping’, only to have to watch the attendant type lots of stuff into his laptop – including typing out my bank card details – before providing me with my ticket! He was very cheery about it all, but the whole process took some 3-4 minutes and so it was just as well there were only two people behind me!
As it happened, it was a somewhat bizarre day of few-and-far-between rewards for bowlers (just 6 wickets all day) and batsmen reaping the benefits of a good batting wicket (a double centurion, a centurion and a double-century stand). Surrey ended 603 all out and Gloucestershire 86-0*.
I love the rather pedestrian routine of cricket-watching… the almost exclusively ‘aged’ spectators – many no doubt sitting in the seat they always sit in and many of them apparently far more interested in reading their newspapers than watching the cricket! A couple of old blokes in front of me (the very talkative one announcing to all those within earshot that he was 76 years old and the other one occasionally correcting his friend’s memory!)(I changed position three times during the course of the day!) seemed to spend most of the time trying to recall various somewhat obscure sporting facts – mainly to do with football(!), such as: “Did you know that Spurs last got relegated to the second division in 1977?” or “What was the name of that Italian geezer who played for Middlesbrough in the mid-1990s?” (Ravanelli)… “and did you know he scored a hat-trick against Liverpool on his debut?”.
Oh what fun!
After lunch, one of the elderly committee members (I presumed he was ‘on the committee’ from his loud remarks about him having to “go to Lord’s next week for an important meeting”!) came to chat to a couple of nearby spectator friends of his. He was a very posh, know-it-all ‘gentleman’ who seemed to spend most of his time preparing agendas for various club-related matters (“never enough hours in the day” etc). During the course of their conversation, he described his experiences of undertaking zoom interviews with some prospective committee members (or whatever the vacancies were for): “A couple of the chaps we interviewed (note: they were ALL chaps!) were appropriately dressed in jackets and ties – they’d made an effort – but this other chap was there in his T-shirt for goodness sake!”.
How DARE he!
Obviously, I was concentrating on the cricket ALL the time.
Despite the occasional sunny intervals, it was pretty cold. I wore a thermal vest, shirt, jumper and a fleece – by mid-afternoon, a bloke sitting in the same row of seats wrapped himself in a blanket to keep warm. Hot toddies should probably have been the order of the day. In the morning, I scribbled a quick sketch of a group of nearby spectators – each of them wearing woolly hats and thick jackets… it definitely didn’t feel like cricket weather. There seems to be a huge irony for those of us who love watching county championship games that the powers-that-be have effectively relegated these fixtures to the coldest times of the season (ie. April+May and late August+September).
Who said cricket was “a summer game”!?  
PS: *I’m writing this post on the day following my cricket ‘trip’ and it seems that the bowlers continue to struggle for wickets… at lunch, Gloucestershire were 215-0!

Thursday, April 21, 2022

march-april 2022 books…

The Village Of Eight Graves (Seishi Yokomizo): This was my third Yokomizo murder mystery (first published in 1971)… and probably my favourite of the three. As always, the plot is quite complicated (but clever and intriguing) – with more murders than ‘Midsomer Murders’ – and involves a young man arriving in hamlet nestling in the mountains of Japan (named ‘Eight Graves’ after a centuries-old massacre) to claim a mysterious inheritance. There are a series of gruesome poisonings but, with the help of the famous Kosuke Kindaichi (the book’s equivalent of Christie’s Poirot), the mystery is eventually solved (despite all the various red herrings and dubious alibis. It’s typical, classic, crime fiction with all the dots duly joined up by way of explanation at the end of the book.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes… (Viv Albertine): This was Albertine’s first book (published in 2014). I’d previously read her follow-up ‘To Throw Away Unopened’ (published in 2018) and had been vaguely familiar with the punk band “The Slits” and, by association, knew that Viv Albertine had been a guitarist in the band. She’s a really excellent writer (and I heard her at a book launch 3 years ago and was very impressed). As the title suggests, this memoir is about her ‘obsession’ (my description) about clothes, music and boys. From a poor, working-class background and largely brought up by her mother, the book is a breathtakingly honest, often quite shocking story about her life in the band, her subsequent health and family struggles and her re-connection with music in her mid-fifties. She describes herself as being somewhat shy (I’m not sure I’d agree – ‘bossy and selfish’ might be closer to the mark?). She’s certainly a determined, rebellious, uncompromising woman (we wouldn’t have ‘got on’!). Nevertheless, the book is incredibly readable and entertaining (400+ pages which I read in 3 days).
A Black Boy At Eton (Dillibe Onyeama): The book was first published in 1972 and re-published, fifty years later, after being selected by Bernardine Evaristo as one of a series of ‘rediscovered’ books about Black Britain. Nigerian Onyeama (son of a Supreme Court Judge) is a couple of years younger than me, but interesting nevertheless to compare our respective school experiences – not that Handsworth Grammar quite compares with Eton!). In 1969, he became the first black person to finish their studies at Eton College. He wrote the book about his experiences of racism at Eton, “Nigger at Eton” (but subsequently re-titled). It’s a shocking story of the cruel racial prejudice and racism he endured during his time at the school. It’s a very frank book - frequently exposing his own inappropriate behaviour on occasions – written, in my view, in a style of awkward formality (and reflecting a somewhat naïve attitude to life and, in Evaristo’s words, “still maturing into adulthood”). By his own admission, he wasn’t a particularly impressive pupil (arrogant and a self-confessed snob)(probably a common Etonian trait!); he was unpopular with many of his fellow students and taunted/verbally abused by many of them; he comes across as someone who was self-centred, insensitive and unaware of how his own actions and comments might be interpreted; he was also not averse to using violence against his aggressors. Despite its occasional humour, it’s a dehumanising and shameful book - reflecting much of the sickening colour prejudice of the time in society (much of which sadly continues today).
Being Mortal (Atul Gawande): This is a book about what it’s like to get old and die and how we manage our mortality… and I thought it was rather wonderful. It might seem a little morbid reading about such a subject, but this eloquent, moving book is something of a manifesto that could radically improve the lives of the aged and the terminally ill. Gawande is a surgeon and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the book includes accounts of a number of people’s ‘last days’. It opens a door to discussions with close relatives about how people wish to spend their final days – not necessarily about extending life, but more about living with dignity and joy until the end of it (ie. not so much a medical problem but a human one). It’s beautifully and engagingly written and I highly recommend it.
Grey Bees (Andrey Kurkov): This is our Storysmith bookgroup’s next book and to say that it’s pertinent to what’s going in Ukraine at the present time would be something of an understatement! First published in 2018, the book relates to “Putin’s failed attempt to tear Ukraine away from Europe” (Kurkov describes in the book’s Foreword) in 2013 – although Russia did manage to capture the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and also sent officers and activists to the south and east Ukraine. The strip of land between the resulting front line between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists is referred to as the “grey zone”. Most of the inhabitants have left this zone but, here and there, some stubborn residents refused to budge. This novel is the story of the only two villagers who remain: a 49 year-old, retired safety inspector turned beekeeper and an old ‘enemy’ from his schooldays. As spring approaches, under the ever-present threat of bombardment the beekeeper knows he needs to take his bees far from the Grey Zone so they can collect their pollen in peace. This ‘simple mission’ on their behalf introduces him to combatants and civilians on both sides of the battle lines - uncooperative border guards and officialdom, generous and/or suspicious civilians. The sense of war’s futility is one of the novel’s constant themes. He is brought into contact with two families, who represent other lives and other cultures, but whose kindness and consideration are touching. Despite the ever-present threat of bombardment, there’s a gentle, almost childlike simplicity to the book and to its main character that makes it an endearing read. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

response to partygate excuses…

Keir Starmer is not my idea of a hugely effective Leader of the Opposition…
However, I think his response to Mr Johnson’s ‘apology’ this afternoon is probably his most powerful speech in the Commons to date. 

This is what he said: 
“What a joke. Even now as the latest mealy-mouthed apology stumbles out of one side of his mouth, a new set of deflections and distortions pour from the other.
But the damage is already done.
The public have made up their mind.
They don’t believe a word the Prime Minister says.
They know what he is.
As ever with this Prime Minister those close to him find themselves ruined and the institutions he vows to protect damaged.
Good ministers forced to walk away from public service.
The Chancellor’s career up in flames.
And the Leader of the Scottish Conservatives rendered pathetic.
For all those unfamiliar with this Prime Minister’s career.
This isn’t some fixable glitch in the system.
It’s the whole point.
It’s what he does.
It’s who he is.
He knows he’s dishonest and incapable of changing.
So he drags everybody else down with him.
The more people debase themselves, parroting his absurd defences, the more the public will believe all politicians are the same.
All as bad as each other.
And that suits this Prime Minister just fine.
Some members opposite seem oblivious to the Prime Minister’s game.
Some know what he’s up to but are too weak to act.
But others are gleefully playing the part the Prime Minister cast for them.
A minister on the radio this morning saying it’s the same as a speeding ticket.
No it’s not.
No one has ever broken down in tears because they couldn’t drive faster than 20mph outside a school.
Don’t insult the public with this nonsense.
But Mr Speaker, as it happens the last Minister who got a speeding ticket and then lied about it ended up in prison and I know because I prosecuted him.
And last week we were treated to a grotesque spectacle.
One of the Prime Minister’s loyal supporters accusing teachers and nurses of drinking in the staff room through lockdown.
Members opposite can associate themselves with that if they want.
But those of us who take pride in our NHS workers, our teachers and every other key worker who got us through those dark days will never forget their contempt.
Plenty didn’t agree with every rule the Prime Minister wrote.
But they followed them nonetheless because in this country we respect others, we put the greater good above narrow self-interest and we understand that the rules apply to all of us.
This morning, I spoke to John Robinson, a constituent for the Member for Lichfield, I want to tell his story.
When his wife died of Covid, John and his family obeyed the Prime Minister’s rules.
He didn’t see her in hospital, he didn’t hold her hand as she died.
Their daughters and grandchildren drove 100 miles up the motorway, clutching a letter from the funeral director in case they were questioned by the police.
They didn’t have a service in the church, John’s son-in-law stayed away because he would have been the forbidden seventh mourner.
Doesn’t the Prime Minister realise that John would have given the world to hold his dying wife’s hand, even if it was just for nine minutes?
But he didn’t.
Because he followed the Prime Minister’s rules.
Rules that we now know the Prime Minister blithely, repeatedly and deliberately ignored.
After months of insulting excuses, today’s half-hearted apology will never be enough for John Robinson.
If the Prime Minister had any respect for John and the millions like him who sacrificed everything to follow the rules he’d resign.
But he won’t.
Because he doesn’t respect John.
He doesn’t respect the sacrifice of the British public.
He is a man without shame.
Looking past the Member for Lichfield and the nodding dogs in the cabinet.
There are many decent, honourable members on the benches opposite.
Who do respect John Robinson.
Who do respect the British public.
They know the damage the Prime Minister is doing.
They know things can’t go on as they are.
And they know it is their responsibility to bring an end to this shameful chapter.
Today I urge them once again.
Don’t follow in the slipstream of an out of touch, out of control Prime Minister.
Put their conscience first, put their country first, put John Robinson first and remove the Prime Minister from office.
Bring decency, honesty and integrity back into our politics.
And stop the denigration of everything that this country stands for”. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

march 2022 books…

The Inugami Curse (Seishi Yokomizo): This is the second Yokomizo detective mystery I’ve read. First published in 1972, the story is set in 1940s Japan and the wealthy head of the Inugami Clan has died and his family eagerly await the reading of his will. Strange details emerge about forbidden liaisons, monstrous cruelty and hidden identities which, in turn, lead to a series of bizarre and gruesome murders. Yokomizo’s notorious detective Kindaichi tries to unravel matters… The book is clearly one of those ‘Golden Age of Classic Crime Fiction’ mysteries (with Kindaichi acting the equivalent role of a sort of Hercule Poirot character) – ridiculously intricate, frequently funny but far-fetched plot (albeit a clever one) – culminating in the customary detailed explanation of what had taken place (again, think Agatha Christie novels!). Entertaining and enjoyable. 
The Fell (Sarah Moss): Published in 2021, this novel is set in the Peak District in November 2020 – 7 months or so into the pandemic. A 40-something single mother (furloughed from her waitressing job and feeling the strain financially) is having to isolate for 14 days with her 16-year old son. 10 days in, she finally snaps and decides to abandon her house and garden (and her son) – and despite the illegality of it all - to get back into the landscape just beyond their garden gate… with its varied terrain, ever-changing weather and potential dangers. It proves to be an ill-fated mission. It’s a compelling story told through the minds and lives of four characters (the mother; son; their older, shielding, neighbour; and the divorced mountain-rescuer)… which brings back thoughts of our own attitudes and fears about ‘dealing’ (and still dealing) with the pandemic (lots of “when this is all over” promises to ourselves etc). An unsettling, impressive novel.
My Fathers’ Daughter (Hannah-Azieb Pool): This is our Storysmith bookgroup’s latest book (theme: Black British writing). Pool was born in Eritrea and had been adopted, aged 6 months, by a white couple and grew up in England thinking both her parents were dead until. While she studying at Liverpool University, she received a letter from her brother revealing that her father was alive. Her mother had died in childbirth (hers), but it turned out she had three brothers, a sister and one parent (and countless aunts) that she never knew she had. It took her nearly 10 years before she felt she could face up to the challenge of tracing her biological family and travel to Africa in search of roots. It proved to be a fascinating (at times guilt-ridden and angry about her feelings relating to her adoption) journey of discovery as she comes to acknowledge how different her life would have been if she had stayed in her homeland. The contrasts are enormous: a middle-class, high-profile journalist living in liberal, secular Britain with her own small London apartment and enjoying 3 foreign holidays a year compared with a patriarchal society in Eritrea where women are expected to get married in their teens, produce children and, often, forgo career opportunities. A compelling, candid and enjoyable book.
Silverview (John Le Carré): This was Le Carré’s was final full-length book (he died last December). As everyone knows, he was a brilliant writer of spy stories and this one is predictably clever, complicated and intriguing – with cold war references; hints of communist Poland; the breakup of Yugoslavia; and the struggle in Palestine. My problem is that Le Carré frequently leaves me feeling intellectually inadequate with his own in-depth knowledge and experience of motives and consequences of British foreign policy. I also often found myself constantly needing to trawl back to be reminded of the who’s who of the novel’s principal characters and their frequently complex relationships. It took me some time to ‘get into the story’ but, once in, I found it quite compelling – even if I find the idea of going through life never being able to trust anyone repellent!
The Word Detective (John Simpson): This is our next “Bloke’s Books” book selection. Simpson is the former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He joined the editorial staff of the OED in 1976 to work on the Supplement to the OED and was appointed Chief Editor in 1993, a position he held until his retirement in October 2013. As Chief Editor, he led the first comprehensive revision of the OED and oversaw the introduction of its online version. Simpson’s book provides an evocative history of the painstakingly-slow work in producing and subsequently editing and updating the OED and it wasn’t until 1989 that the OED was published “from a computer database”, which enabled dissemination of text as a searchable CD. The very thought of compiling and constantly updating a dictionary without a database - or subsequently the internet - is somewhat overwhelming. I loved Simpson’s humorous, somewhat self-deprecating style of writing and his tenacious eye for detail. He also writes beautifully about his family – his wise wife, and his two daughters (one of whom has a mystifying disability which, poignantly and with a cruel irony, has resulted in her existence in a “wordless world”). It’s a low-key, wise, fascinating and charming book.