Friday, December 02, 2016

london klezmer quartet…

Moira and I attended to a quite extraordinary evening of music last night at Saint Stephen’s. The London Klezmer Quartet is a group of four immensely-talented and dynamic musicians (featuring violin, clarinet, accordion and double bass), formed in 2009 by a group of klezmer specialists keen to explore the almost-lost wedding music tradition of Jewish eastern Europe. I went along anticipating good musicianship and an entertaining evening but, if I’m honest, little more than that really. I couldn’t recall ever having been to a concert of Jewish music before and my expectations were probably limited to images of “Fiddler on the Roof” (pathetic, I know)!
Well, how wrong I was!
What transpired was an evening of glorious, celebratory and soulful music of the Eastern European Jewish tradition – old and new traditional songs, exuberant, passionate and hugely-accomplished performances (and they were witty and funny too). They were a complete revelation.
I was particularly taken by the double bass player, Indra Buraczewska (out of Latvia/Australia!) – a wonderful musician and a natural ‘performer’… with an incredible, deep singing voice. Completely captivating.
A brilliant, exciting evening!
PS: They were supported by an unusual and, again, highly-talented “Chai For All” – ‘trumpet-led klezmer Balkan and Arabic tunes with kaval, clarinet, oud, guitar, derabukka and Yiddish song’. Pretty special in their own right!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

your name...

I went to the Watershed yesterday to see Makoto Shinkai’s much-acclaimed film “Your Name” (Japan’s highest-grossing film of the year). As you might know, I’ve been a great admirer of the Studio Ghibli animated films – and was hugely saddened when Hayao Miyazaki announced that he’d made his last full-length feature film. Well, now it seems that Shinkai has emerged as Miyazuki’s heir apparent.
This is a simply stunningly beautiful film – on all levels.
Visually, it is hugely ambitious, wonderfully-observed and brilliantly executed (even better than Studio Ghibli in my view!). As a story, it’s emotionally-charged (and funny!), thought-provoking and cleverly mixes contemporary and traditional elements.
It’s a complicated film about two teenagers who haven’t met, but who find their lives intertwined after the arrival of the first visible comet for a thousand years approaches Japan. I have to admit that there were parts that I didn’t fully understand or appreciate (I think I need to see it again!). Mitsuha lives in a rural area and longs to leave; meanwhile, Taki is at school in Tokyo (and he’s a part-time waiter). They begin to dream about each other, imagining that, somehow, they’ve exchanged bodies and are living in parallel lives. Their spirits appear to swap back and forth at random, facilitating the need for smartphone messages to keep each other abreast of their oddly intimate adventures. And this is all set against darker background of a multi-coloured, threatening sky which is about to fall on them.

I’ve just read Mark Kermode’s review of the film in The Observer (he gave it a 5 star review!). He concluded it thus: “Like the stories they tell, these moving pictures are a fusion of the ancient and modern. ‘Treasure the experience,’ Mitsuha’s grandmother tells her sagely. ‘Dreams fade away after you wake up.’ Not so this splendid movie, which will leave audiences in a heady reverie long after its mysterious light has faded from the screen”.
I would say ‘Amen’ to that! You need to see it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

november 2016 books…

Eric Ravilious: Memoir Of An Artist (Helen Binyon): I was given this rather lovely book (and the “High Street” book included below) by my very good ‘Drawing Group’/Saint Stephen’s friend David McLaughlin (we also both worked for Geoffrey Beard at The Oxford Architects Partnership in the mid-1970s!). I could generally recognise much of Ravilious’s work but, somewhat shamefully perhaps, didn’t know much more about him. This book, first published in 1983, is written by his friend (and fellow student at the Royal College of Art, from 1922 onwards). Ravilious, who tragically died in 1942 while on service as an Official War Artist, produced an extraordinary amount of work in his short career - including murals, watercolours, wood engravings, lithographs and pottery designs. Interestingly (for me, at least!), there was also a reference to Ravilious’s work for the Kynoch Press in Birmingham in 1932 (in connection with their prestigious annual “Note Book”)… my father was a compositor at the Kynoch Press some 40 years later, during the latter days of his printing career in the mid-1970s. The book is fascinating insight into the work of an outstanding artist… or, as its cover puts it: “a compelling account of a genius”. 
High Street (JM Richards and Eric Ravilious): First published in 1938 (and subsequently republished in 2012 by V+A Publishing), this book introduces the British high street – pairing Ravilious’s 24 illustrations with Richards’s text (I was very familiar with his “An Introduction to Modern Architecture”!). It was initially conceived and promoted as a children’s book, but soon gained a wider reputation with adult readers. The text is frequently hilarious – like this for the ‘Clerical Outfitter’: “A shop like this has one advantage over other shops: it can give any amount of credit as a clergyman can always be traced and so can never get away without paying”. It’s a wonderful, rather poignant, reminder of how things have changed in our local High Streets… and, needless to say, the illustrations are beautiful – albeit, “of their time”.
The Snow Geese (William Fiennes): I first read this book in 2003 and recently picked it up again (and realised how little of it I could remember!). Hence the re-read! At the age of 25, in the middle of his post-graduate studies, Fiennes was struck with a severe illness. During his long period of convalescence at his parents’ family home in the Midlands, he rediscovers an old neglected interest in ornithology, inspired by his father and readings of a favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose. He becomes fascinated by the bird and ultimately decides to follow the birds on their long migratory path from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Arctic. This lovely, beautifully-written, book tells of his journey, the people he met on the way and, of course, nature and the geese themselves. A very special, reflective and poetic book.
Oxford (James Morris/Jan Morris): We used to have a hardback ‘James Morris’ copy of this book (first published in 1965, as illustrated above), but must have lent it to someone (as you do!) and never had it returned. We subsequently replaced it with a revised paperback version in 1979 (published in 1978). As students in Oxford in the late 1960s/early 70s (spending more than a decade living there), it provided a wonderful backdrop to the city we came to love. I was ‘inspired’ to re-read the book following a recent television programme in which Michael Palin talked to Jan Morris about her life as a writer and journalist. It’s a truly magical book (I might be a little prejudiced, of course!) – crammed with fascinating insights and obscure facts. This is the third time I’ve read it (although I’ve referred to it on numerous occasions) and I’m so glad that I did. Oxford has no doubt changed dramatically over the past 40-50 years, but it’s still instantly recognisable through Morris’s perceptive, lyrical prose. It’s one of those books that people will still be reading in 50 or 100 years time and marvelling at its contents. In the light of June’s EU Referendum, the following extract is particularly poignant(!): “The University… vigorously supported British entry to the Common Market; and when in 1975 a national referendum was held to determine the issue once and for all, among the deciding factors may well have been the debate on the subject at the Oxford Union, addressed by passionate political leaders of both factions, televised nationally in a three-hour marathon programme, and ending with an overwhelming vote for Europeanness”. Ah, those were the days!! Yes, I might just have become over-nostalgic in my old age, but I can’t recall a book that has given me so much pleasure to read. A simply wonderful book.
The High Mountains Of Portugal (Yann Martel): This is our Book Group’s next book (I haven’t yet read Martel’s Man Booker prizewinning “The Life of Pi”!). It involves three inter-connected stories, set in Portugal over the course of the twentieth century – all have a common theme of grief and lost love (the men in each of the stories has suffered the death of a wife). I found all three stories somewhat haunting in character – at times intriguing and yet, ultimately, all of them irritating and frustrating. I found the first two tales tediously slow at times (in the first one, for instance, the author spends over 20 pages describing how our character learns to drive a car!) and any momentum that is established was ultimately unfulfilled. No doubt Martel felt he was being clever and mysterious but, each time, I was left with a sense of “damp squibs”! For me, the final part of the book was better in this respect (you realised that the three stories would be brought together in some way) but, again, I was left feeling disappointed and underwhelmed. I wanted to like this book but, sadly, I didn’t!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

general election 2017?

A couple of days ago, I wrote this as my facebook status:
Dear Labour Party: I think there's going to be a General Election VERY soon (especially after the High Court ruling on Article 50) and, if this is the case, as things stand (with you continuing to fail to provide an effective Opposition), it's going to be an utter disaster - probably guaranteeing a Tory government for the next 10 years at least. It could actually result in the demise of the Labour Party itself.
So, please get your act together very, VERY quickly... for the sake of the country.
Talking and negotiating with the LibDems, the SNP and the Green Party is probably your/our ONLY hope... but, hey, I know you won't be listening!

It triggered some interesting and thought-provoking responses.

The fact of the matter is that current opinion polls (30 October, for what it’s worth) indicate that the Tories have a 16% lead over Labour (Tories 43%, Labour 27%, LibDems 8%, UKIP 12%, Others 10%). This compares with an apparent(!) Labour lead of 1% on the eve of the May 2015 General Election (Tories 34%, Labour 35%, LibDems 9%, UKIP 11%, Others 11%).
Added to this is the potential for many of the Labour Party’s present MPs to be de-selected by its local membership at the next election. Would this result in more potential voters turning to the Labour Party or giving up altogether? I think most people would simply shake their heads and question if a Party that couldn’t sort itself out was actually capable of running the country. Perhaps I’m wrong.
One report I’ve seen this week has suggested that, based on current opinion polls, the Labour Party could be reduced to something like 160 seats in parliament (it current has 231) which would provide the Tories with a MASSIVE majority. On this basis, as I outlined on facebook, I genuinely fear that the Conservative Party would be in power for at least another ten years. The implications for the NHS, Mental Health, Education, Welfare, the Arts, the Rich and the Poor… and society in general are, for me, frankly TERRIFYING.
I genuinely feel that the majority of the population would share my concerns (albeit not as passionately perhaps?).

Sadly, our first-past-the-post election system provides no encouragement whatsoever. Effectively, this means that the outcome of a General Election hinges on the outcome in perhaps 100 “marginal” seats (however you gauge the term!). I would therefore maintain that there is very little prospect of Labour winning the next election (you might disagree – in which case, I admire your optimism!) based on the current electoral system. In my view, the ONLY way to prevent a Tory landslide at the next general Election is 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).
In order for this happen, it will 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).
Such a move would require brave leadership amongst all the opposition parties… but the potentially devastating implications, if they don’t, don’t bear thinking about.
Sadly, I don’t think the Labour Party would contemplate such a policy under its present leadership (and we all know that there’s very chance of a new leader being elected before the next General Election!).
It might be time to move to Iceland… or Finland… or Denmark (if they’ll have us!)?


Thursday, November 03, 2016

grayson perry: typical man in a dress…

Went to see/hear Grayson Perry last night at Colston Hall.
He’s a pretty amazing bloke… definitely one of those people I’d have in my “dream team”. I don’t think I realised just how good he was before going to see his brilliant exhibition at The British Museum in 2011 (“Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”?). Since then, I’ve been captivated by his art, his various excellent television series for Channel 4 television (“All Man”, “Who Are You?” and “In the Best Possible Taste”) and his stunningly good Reith Lectures in 2013 (which you still listen to via BBC iPlayer).

Grayson Perry has the happy knack of being able to communicate with anyone. I suppose you could even describe his manner as “matey” (which, on the face of it, seems a somewhat strange description for a cross-dressing potter!). He’s a natural communicator (and performer). He’s articulate, perceptive, funny, instinctive and intelligent. He’s able to challenge people without appearing to judge them. He’s utterly compelling. Last night, he mainly focussed on the subject of “masculinity”. The Colston Hall blurb described him as a “lecturer and bestselling author with traditional masculine traits like a desire to always be right and to overtake all other cyclists when going up big hills”.
The theatre was full. He’s clearly a very popular, well-loved bloke!
He talked on stage for an hour against a backdrop of visual images to illustrate his words (strutting his stuff in a couple of flamboyant and colourful dresses and outrageous shoes!). For the second half of the show, he’d encouraged the audience to tweet on the subject of masculinity (during the interval) and spent some time talking about these… before a Q+A sequence, followed by a final summing up of what he believes masculinity should (and shouldn’t) be about.
Somewhat bizarrely, during the course of the evening, I found myself at times wishing that Grayson Perry was our Prime Minster. Maybe I could envisage Perry, with his high-heeled, sparkly blue wedges, waging war (rather more effectively than the current Opposition) with a well-shod Theresa May across the Dispatch Box?!
If only…  
It was a rather wonderful, uplifting, entertaining evening.
At a time when everything in the world at present seems bleak and depressing, Grayson Perry brought a little bit of hope and inspiration!
He’s become a national treasure. How did THAT happen!?
Photo: Grayson Perry on stage last night (we were in row D!)…

Monday, October 31, 2016

ethel and ernest…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Roger Mainwood’s film “Ethel and Ernest” – based on Raymond Briggs’ autobiographical graphic novel about his parents Ethel and Ernest.
I’m a huge fan of Raymond Briggs. I used to love reading  “Father Christmas Goes On Holiday” to our daughters (and subsequently to our grandchildren) and, now, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without me inflicting “The Snowman” and “Father Christmas” DVDs on to grandchildren – whether they want to see them or not!
I also find it quite amusing that Briggs himself now appears to despise Christmas… “I don’t like the Christmas thing at all. It’s so full of anxiety – have I got enough stuff? Where am I going to go? What should I give for presents?”…
Well, I found this animated film rather lovely (Brenda Blethyn’s and Jim Broadbent’s voices are just perfect). Predictably charming and ordinary… and very much capturing Briggs’ style.
It re-tells half-remembered family stories – some sad, some very funny; it reminds those of us of a certain age about how things were and about how much things have changed for our children… and their children.
In many ways, it was like watching a picture about my own parents’ life and marriage… albeit set some 15 years earlier (E+E met in the late-1920s, R+M met in the mid-1940s):
·         Ethel+Ernest were, like my parents Ron+Mary, from a working class background.
·         Ethel and Mary had a somewhat similar, simplistic, attitude to life – the family was everything and what was happening in the world beyond the family never seemed to be important to them (BUT they were both critical of the length of their son’s hair!).
·         Ernest was a milkman (with socialist tendencies!) and a bit of dreamer who took a keen interest in what was happening in the world via newspapers and the radio (and later TV). Despite his working class roots, Ron always voted Conservative; he was a compositor (printer) and was always keen to educate himself (he would have LOVED the internet!). After being made redundant fairly late in his working life, he ended up driving a bread delivery van – so, again, a bit like Ernest.
·        Raymond Briggs himself is 15 years older than me… was a grammar school boy and then went to Art School (The Slade) – much to his parents’ bewilderment; I went to grammar school (and my parents were alarmed when I was put into the fast ‘Remove’ stream and somewhat sceptical about me going to study architecture at university - the first in our family to do so… and why on earth couldn’t I stay in Birmingham to study for goodness sake?!).
·         Like Ethel+Ernest, Ron+Mary (eventually) owned a Triumph Herald… and like me, Raymond owned a Mini van!
·         Ethel+Ernest had a very good marriage and enjoyed a good life. The same could be said for my parents… and I’m so grateful that they did.
“Ethel and Ernest” is a predictably nostalgic film – at times, moving, powerful and funny. The way Ernest stared at the sunset from his back garden or at the view across miles of open landscape with Raymond, is somewhat reminiscent of Ron’s (and Mary’s) appreciation of the world’s beauty.
It’s a wonderfully evocative film and, for me, what I REALLY liked was its quiet, proud ‘ordinariness’ and the way it honours ordinary lives.

Friday, October 21, 2016

I, Daniel Blake...

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Ken Loach’s acclaimed film “I, Daniel Blake”. It’s the story of the friendship between an out-of-work, 59 year-old carpenter (Daniel Blake) and young single mother… who are both forced to navigate the challenges of the welfare system in Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Blake (brilliantly played by Dave Johns) is recovering from a heart attack, but not yet allowed (by his doctor and consultant) to return to work. As a result, he has to apply for Employment and Support Allowance… but, in its wisdom, the government has decreed that his benefits will be taken away unless he looks for work (but he can’t work because his doctors have said he can’t… etc etc). This is all made worse by the fact that all the required forms have to be completed online (and Daniel hasn’t a clue about computers).
You get the picture.
Meanwhile, Daniel befriends Katie (again, brilliantly played by Hayley Squires) at the local Jobcentre… she’s being messed around by the “system” (which has included her being relocated with her two children from a London homeless shelter) and he endeavours to intervene (unsuccessfully, of course).
They develop an unlikely, but very supportive, mutual alliance… but they struggle to avoid being crushed by the bureaucracy.
It’s a massively powerful, beautiful, sad, emotional (and, sometimes, even funny) film.
Yes, it’s Ken Loach (what would you expect?).
Yes, it’s ‘only’ a film.
But, sadly, it IS based on reality… people who genuinely struggle to provide for their families – many just managing thanks largely to foodbanks… and some who just don’t manage; people who struggle with farcical bureaucracy and with political ideologies. As Loach has said: “Few people are aware of what’s going on, and the scale of it, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, many of them feeling ashamed”.
Honest, hard-working, humble, good people.
It’s a film that will shock and sadden you.
It‘s a film about humiliation, degradation and despair.
And yet, it’s also a film about hope and goodness.
It’s a film that will probably make you cry and, if it’s anything like our experience today, it’s a film that the audience will applaud at the end (how many times does that happen?).
You definitely need to see this film… and so should all our politicians who deal with welfare and housing issues (Iain Duncan Smith has an awful lot to answer for)…
In fact, EVERYONE should see this brilliant film.

nessi gomes...

Last night was the second concert in a week for me (well, the third if you count the free lunchtime concert on Monday!)… so, not quite a ‘normal’ week for me as far as music is concerned.
I first came to hear about yesterday’s concert at Saint Stephen’s church through a friend (who, like me, also happens to be a member of this church’s rather special community). I knew nothing about Nessi Gomes – except that she was on a tour to launch her new album (released on 14 October), that she was a British-Portuguese singer-songwriter, that she was voted Winner of Best Unsigned Female Singer 2016… and that tickets cost just £7!
So, hopes for a good evening… but with limited expectations perhaps?
The evening started well with support singer/guitarist Sennen Timcke. Gomes followed him immediately on stage (just her, no interval)… she spoke a few words… which I couldn’t quite hear (it wasn’t just me, by the way)… the phrase “limited expectations” went through my head!
But then she started to play her guitar… and you just knew “it was going to be alright”!
I’m pretty useless at describing these things but, for me, it conjured up thoughts of Leonard Cohen’s guitar. Her voice turned out to be quite stunning too… dark, powerful, haunting, mournful. Her songs were melancholic, reflective and very beautiful. I’ve been trying to think who she reminds me of… but can’t really put my finger on anyone in particular (which probably reflects my lack of knowledge in these areas!)… perhaps Kate Bush on occasions? Joanna Newsom maybe? 
Anyway, another really excellent evening (lucky me). Yes, Nessi Gomes is a bit special... and you should definitely get to see/hear her if you possibly can.
Photo: Nessi Gomes, from last night’s concert.
PS: check out the website to hear some of her music.