Friday, November 17, 2017

the florida project…

Went to the Watershed this afternoon to see Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project”… about life ‘in America’s underbelly’ (as the Watershed’s blurb puts it). It tells the story of a spirited six year-old, her friends and single mother who ‘live’ in a depressing, garishly-painted, lilac motel outside Disney World in Orlando (one of many long-stay welfare places for transients and mortgage defaulters). The mother – impressively played by Bria Vinaite (a heavily tattooed first-time actor who Baker apparently found through Instagram, with a business selling weed-themed merchandise!) – spends most of the film swearing incessantly and desperately trying to come up with her weekly rent through a mixture of hawking Gucci knockoff perfumes to tourists and selling her body. Her life, it seems, is all about delusion and fear. Her six year-old daughter, Moonee – astonishingly played by Brooklynn Prince – is a feral child (alongside her fellow friends), able to do whatever she likes and go wherever she wants… and she too swears like a trooper throughout the film. Prince is unforced, humourous and entirely natural… and, for her, living next to a theme park, probably feels a little like living in paradise.
It’s wonderful. It’s funny. It’s powerfully impressive. It’s beautifully photographed… but it’s also very depressing and a sad reflection of the lives of some of those who find themselves on the very margins of society.
That’s not to say that everyone in such situations lives their lives in such a manner.

I knew I’d find the film depressing at times. I knew I’d spend much of the film wanting the ‘grown-ups’ to have some regard as to how and where their offspring were spending their days (it was the summer vacation). I knew I’d be amused at the antics of the children but, at the same time, horrified by their lack of respect and by their abusive, rude behaviour.
Both mother and daughter use the F-word incessantly. You just know right from the start that the family isn’t going to win the lottery and live happily ever after… and yet there is real affection between these two characters – they really do love each other.
You get a very strong feeling that the film is all about seeing things from a child’s point of view and, apparently, Baker insisted that the camera is at child’s eye level when children are being filmed… and this is very effective.
The film is fiction and yet you just know that such situations are being played out in countries throughout the world… and, tragically, you just KNOW that the daughter will inherit the mistakes and attitudes of the mother… and that her future is almost pre-destined. In such circumstances, sadly, life is often self-perpetuating.
A brilliant, very impressive, warm, compassionate - albeit somewhat depressing - film.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

up down man…

Tonight, Moira and I went to the Tobacco Factory Theatre to see Brendan Murray’s “Up Down Man” (the sequel to “Up Down Boy”) – a play about growing up and moving on… through the eyes of a twenty-nine year-old man, named Matty Butler (who has Down’s Syndrome) and his family.
Yesterday, I spent over an hour drawing students from the circus school, Circomedia as they practised handstands, cartwheels, back-flips and the like… and I was mesmerised by their sheer grace and elegance of movement.
Well, tonight was no different.
Nathan Bessell (who plays Matty Butler) is at the centre of this play at all times, and communicates so much through his movement and expression… and quite, quite beautifully.

“This is who I am – my name is Matty Butler. I’m not a child, I’m twenty nine years old. I like foxes, badgers, dancing, eating dinner, going bowling, Eastenders, dancing and foxes. I’d like to have a friend. Maybe Angel from Buffy. And we’d go on holiday and live together and have dinner and go dancing. I’m not a child you see. I’m twenty nine years old. My name is Matty Butler. This is who I am. And I like foxes.”

It’s a very powerful, yet simple, story.
In the play, Matty’s mother died six weeks ago. The family are trying to come terms with her death. People with Down’s Syndrome are now statistically living longer, but what happens when they outlive their parents? The job of a parent (especially a parent of a child who has a learning disability) is to prepare their child for a time when they will fly the nest. It’s a delicate balance… providing protection from some of the more difficult and painful parts of life, but also trusting them (where possible) with a level of independence… which might in turn lead them to getting hurt.
As you might imagine, as a grandparent of 11 year-old Mikey - who has Down’s Syndrome (and also autism) – this play is incredibly close to my heart.
The supporting cast are excellent: Arran Glass (Mr Fox/Musician); Emily Bowker (Darcy Butler, sister); Joe Hall (Martin Butler, father); Heather Williams (Odette Butler, mother); and Bryan Thomas (Jim).
It’s poignant and it’s sad, but it’s also funny, hugely hopeful and uplifting.
I thought it was just wonderful.
PS: It runs until Saturday 18 November… if you live in the Bristol area, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

ricky ross at st george’s…

When I grow up, I’m going to be a singer/songwriter and play a grand piano… just like Ricky Ross.
Last night, Chris and I went to see/hear Ross perform his songs, unaccompanied, for an hour and a half – just him and St George’s wonderful grand piano. Sadly, I can’t play ANY instrument and I certainly can’t sing very well… although I DO remember composing some stunning songs (believe me, they were wonderful!) whilst rocking grandchildren to sleep at various times. Unfortunately, they’re now lost in the mists of time.
The concert was simply brilliant.
I just love the sound of a single voice and a piano together. I’ve been listening to a lot of Ross’s music over recent weeks (his “Short Stories, Volume 1” is simply brilliant in my view) and they’ve provided a perfect musical accompaniment and resonance for the various things I’ve been undertaking recently… and, perhaps, also for my day-to-day reflections on stuff that is happening in the wider world.
Last night was a perfect combination: profound, evocative, sad, uplifting, powerful… and hauntingly beautiful melodies.
A really wonderful concert (best of the year?).
Photo: photograph from last night’s concert.

Monday, November 06, 2017

tax avoidance, off-shore tax havens and the like…

Today, in newspapers and websites, we read about a huge leak of financial documents which reveal how the powerful and ultra-wealthy (including the Queen’s private estate) secretly invest vast amounts of cash in offshore tax havens… Many of the stories focus on how politicians, multinationals, celebrities and ‘high-net-worth’ individuals (including people who are significant donors to political parties) use complex structures of trusts, foundations and shell companies to protect their cash from tax officials or hide their dealings behind a veil of secrecy.
Oh, what a surprise!
And, of course, to complicate things a little further, we keep hearing reports that our own government is considering making the UK some form of tax haven to offset lost revenue in the light of Brexit. Last March, for example, it appeared that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were warning the EU that (according to a report in the Guardian) if they don’t like the Brexit deal, they could turn the UK into a tax haven”. Not In My Name!

The trouble is (and, clearly, I’m no financial expert)(slight understatement!) that, over the years, we’ve consistently been told (by both major UK political parties) that there would crackdowns on tax avoidance, offshore tax havens, unacceptable banking practices and the like… and, consistently, over the years, nothing really seems to change.
At the end of last month, for example (I posted a link via facebook at the time), there was a report that five offshore PFI companies (Private Finance Initiatives) had paid little or no corporation tax over the past five years, despite making profits of nearly £2billion. Education and health projects, including schools and hospitals, account for two-thirds of the purchases by offshore companies. So, while our taxes are paying for our schools and hospitals, the PFI companies are clearly profiting and paying no UK tax!
I’ve just spent a few minutes checking back on finance-related stuff that I’d posted on this blog and (I won’t bore you with the details) and this is something I’ve consistently moaned about. For example:
Meltdown (Sep 2008); Financial speculation (Oct 2008); Poverty (Oct 2008); Financial crisis (Nov 2011); Greed (Nov 2011); Public Sector (Nov 2011); Bankers (Feb 2012); Greed, incompetence+dishonesty (June 2012); Banks (July 2012); Libor (July 2012); Protest (Jun 2013)… I could go on (and on!).
Nothing ever seems to change.
It all seems to be about greed; about influence; about the haves and the have-nots; about ‘clever’ people doing things with their money to make yet more money (and often, completely legally); about vested interest; about political lobbyists; about ‘me’ not ‘us’; about political ideology.
I’m about to read a book by my great friend, Ian Adams, entitled “Some Small Heaven(Seeking Light in Winter)”… it’s a book for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. The introduction talks about the winter testing our hope and our resolve. He talks about ‘feeling’ the encroaching darkness of winter and about his stability being tested… and about yearning for a light to come. In a strange way, it seems to be a metaphor for how I’m feeling when I come across things like this depressing report of leaked financial documents.
I need to seek the light amongst this darkness… but I think it’ll continue to be a very difficult and depressing journey.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

BOX-E, gaol ferry steps…

For the second time, Moira and I enjoyed a wonderful meal at BOX-E. The restaurant is housed in two shipping containers that form part of the thriving Cargo development at Gaol Ferry Steps in Bristol.
It’s quite small… they have just 14 seats in their restaurant, but it’s an amazing place – run by two quite exceptional people (Tess and Elliott)… booking is essential.
The Guardian’s Jay Rayner is also clearly also a fan: “It’s the sense of people doing the thing they love their way, by finding an environment in which to make it work”. Chef Elliott Lidstone was formerly head chef of the Michelin-starred L'Ortolan… and then spent four years at the Empress in East London, earning himself two AA rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand… you do.
I really can’t commend the food (and the service and the wine!) highly enough.
If you’ve already been there, then you’ll know… but if you haven’t, then you need to do it!
Photo: from the BOX-E website (check out the website – that’s very good too!)
PS: Our wedding anniversary is 30 December and, with all the food and general indulgence of the Christmas period, going out for a celebratory anniversary meal never seems particularly appropriate. As a result, over the years, we’ve tended to mark the ‘start’ of our time together – 31 October 1969. So last night’s meal was in grateful celebration of having been together for 48 years (cripes!).
PPS: Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite a case of “all we need is music, sweet music… there’ll be music everywhere… they’ll be swinging, swaying, records playing… dancing in the street” on our way home. Moira twisted her ankle coming downstairs from the restaurant!

Friday, November 03, 2017

october-november 2017 books…

SF Barnes – Master Bowler (Leslie Duckworth): This is the second time I’ve read this book (published in 1967) – I bought it in a jumble sale several years ago. Syd Barnes, professional cricketer, was born in Smethwick in 1873 (just a few miles from where I was brought up in Handsworth) and is regarded as one of the greatest ever bowlers. In my youth, I think one of the things that attracted me to following his cricket career was the fact that he had been a leg-spin bowler – or so I thought (I was a leg-spinner too, hence my interest). I subsequently discovered that although, yes, he bowled leg-breaks… he also bowled off-breaks, could swing the ball both ways and actually varied his pace from medium to fast-medium (so, not like my gentle slow stuff at all!). Despite his very long career as a top class player – he played his last competitive game aged 67(!) – he only spent some two seasons in first class cricket (for Warwickshire and Lancashire). He preferred to make his living playing league and minor counties cricket. He did however also play 27 Test Matches for England between 1901 and 1914, taking 189 wickets at a staggering 16.43 runs each (including a world series record of 49 wickets against South Africa in his final Test series in 1913-14). In league and club cricket, between 1895 and 1940, he took a mere 4,069 wickets at an incredible 6.08 runs each! Some people accused him of being “grim and unresponsive” but Duckworth’s book makes it very clear that, despite his little idiosyncrasies, he was well-liked by his fellow players and the public alike. A fascinating book (if you’re a cricket-lover!).
Eating Pomegranates (Sarah Gabriel): This is a remarkable book (first published in 2009 and a chance purchase at Bristol’s beloved Last Bookshop). Sarah Gabriel was a teenager when her mother died from ovarian cancer (aged just 42). When Gabriel was 44, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned that she had inherited a rare and deadly genetic mutation (BRCA1 gene – responsible for the death of her mother and countless female ancestors). Within a year, Gabriel had lost her breasts, her ovaries, her hair and was fighting for her life… and fighting for a way to prevent her two daughters, aged five and three, from growing up motherless. The book is a memoir of mothers, daughters and genes. It’s a beautiful, but often raw and angry book. Sometimes resentful (“why me?”); sometimes making harsh comments about acquaintances and family members… and about people’s insensitive comments; missing her own mother (and her mother’s presence during Gabriel’s illness); needing to speak about her mother and to understand the final days of her mother’s illness. But, crucially, it’s an honest, brave and frank book. As far as I know, Gabriel is still alive (very good news!). Beautifully written. Heartrending. As a mere male, I felt almost privileged to read it. Certainly one of the most powerful books I’ve read all year.  
Things The Grandchildren Should Know (Mark Oliver Everett): Another book picked up at the Last Bookshop. I’m not ‘into’ books by musicians but, as you know, I do like a good autobiography. Well, sadly, this isn’t a particularly good autobiography. I’m not a huge Eels music fan, but I do like some of Everett’s work. The book (published in 2008) tells of his difficult home life; how he survived the deaths of his entire family: and how he managed to make something of his life. Frankly, I found it all a bit pretentious – as an example, the penultimate chapter contains the following somewhat pathetic sentence: “Just living another day has always felt like some sort of success to me”… well, good for you! Actually, one of the reasons I bought the book in the first place was this description inside the back cover: “Mark Oliver Everett is an ordained minister and alternative rock star”… I didn’t know he was an ordained minister and so was intrigued how this had come about. Strangely, although the book contains various comments about not believing in God, there’s absolutely nothing about his life as a minister!
The Greatcoat (Helen Dunmore): This is a ghost story (which, somewhat ironically, I finished on Halloween!)(it also happened to be published by Hammer!), set in 1952, about a young woman – recently married to a country GP – who one night, when her husband is on call, is startled by the face of a young RAF pilot at the window. There used to be a near-by airfield used in the war… where a maimed Lancaster bomber crashed on landing, killing all on board… I won’t bother to go into details, but you get the general idea! Having previously read one of Dunmore’s books (and enjoyed it), I was intrigued at the prospect of reading another. I was sadly disappointed.
Cardus On Cricket (Neville Cardus): Sorry, another cricket book! This book was first published in 1949 (Rupert Hart-Davis’s introduction was written a month before my birth!) – my copy was published in 1951. It’s a compilation of Cardus’s writings from between 1922 and 1937 – indeed, a few from “Days In The Sun” and “The Summer Game”, which I’ve recently read (and reviewed). Hart-Davis was perhaps correct in saying that Cardus’s early pieces seemed to him “flowery and overwritten” but, nevertheless, I find them both wonderfully evocative and illuminating. I particularly liked his piece about Don Bradman, written in 1930 (when Bradman was 22): “And now that a Bradman has come to us, capable of 300 runs in a single day of a Test match, some of us are calling him a Lindrum of cricket. It is a hard world to please. Perhaps by making a duck some day, Bradman will oblige those of his critics who believe with Lord Bacon that there should always be some strangeness, something unexpected, mingled with art and beauty”. Of course (as all cricket-lovers will know), Bradman DID score a duck in his final Test match innings, at the Oval in 1948 -  if he’d scored a mere 4 runs in that innings, he would have finished with Test average of over 100 runs per innings (as it was, he finished on 99.94). Another very enjoyable read.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

ligeti quartet at saint stephen’s…

A quite extraordinary evening yesterday at Saint Stephen’s, Bristol… a concert by a string quartet who are at the forefront of modern and contemporary music since their formation in 2010. I hadn’t come across their music before last night, but was aware (from the Ligeti Quartet website) that they’d “established a reputation as one of the UK’s leading ensembles, breaking new ground through innovative programming and championing of today’s most exciting composers and artists”.
They didn’t disappoint!
The evening featured works from JS Bach (with arrangements by Harrison Birtwistle, born 1934); Sofia Gubaidulina, b 1931; Igor Stravinsky; Anton Webern; Stef Conner, b 1983; Arthur Keegan-Bole, b 1986; George Nicholson, b 1949; and Georg Friedrich Haas, b 1953.

I have to say, they were pretty amazing – stunning musicianship (both individually and collectively), avant-garde, edgy, passionate… playing complex works which required huge trust between each musician and yet demanded confidence and flair to pull it off effectively.
The Quartet have played landmark venues across the world, including Carnegie Hall, Curtis Institute, Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Barbican Hall and Kings Place (as well as a fishing boat, theatres and pubs!).
What I particularly love about this young group of highly-talented musicians is that they are themselves passionate about supporting emerging composers and taking new music to diverse audiences – they’ve commissioned many new works and have collaborated with artists from all types of musical backgrounds.

The concert’s final piece (String Quartet no.2, 1998 by Haas) was particularly remarkable. The programme notes (which I didn’t read fully until after the performance) give an indication of the composer’s intentions: “Haas is one of the best known composers of ‘spectral’ music – music which expands the spectrum of sound that exists inside one pitch… performers and listeners are invited to explore the space between familiar sounds and more unfamiliar, almost alien textures… all at once we hear a juxtaposition of perfectly pure resonances and more abrasive microtonal inflections”.
All I can say is that the resulting performance was something exceptional – I’d certainly never heard anything quite like it… incredibly impressive.
A VERY special evening.
PS: Ligeti Quartet comprises: Mandhira de Saram (violin 1), Patrick Dawkins (violin 2), Richard Jones (viola) and Val Welbanks (cello) – they’re graduates from the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and the University of Oxford.
Photo: credit: Cathy Pyle (note: I didn’t take any of my own photographs last night – there was a young photographer ‘in action’ and I certainly didn’t want to tread on his toes!).