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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

october 2016 books...

More book stuff:
5 Days In May (Andrew Adonis): An absolutely fascinating book (published in 2013) about the UK 2010 general election and coalition negotiations – as seen from the perspective of a Labour insider (and based on his notes of the time). It frequently felt like an episode from “West Wing”! Fascinating to read the contrasting comments of some Labour MPs at the time about the prospect of a Lab-Lib coalition: “If we don’t seize it (the opportunity of a coalition), the Tories could lock us out of power for a generation”… and ”We lost the election. By getting out now, we can regroup and we will back soon. This lot (the prospect of a Con-Lib coalition) won’t last five years, no chance…”. Inevitably, the book contains a number of interesting insights/reminders, such as Nick Clegg declaring (the day after the election) that he felt the chance to form a government should go to the largest party (when his Party’s instincts would surely have been to join with Labour?)… and the unpopularity of Gordon Brown and his apparent lack of team-playing skills (certainly compared with David Cameron’s gift of the gab and his ability to schmooze!). What I also found quite surprising (perhaps I should have known?) were the political instincts and backgrounds of Clegg and David Laws (key member of the Lib Dem negotiating team): Clegg has a privileged Home Counties, public school-educated background in the same mould as Cameron+Osborne; he worked with Tory Leon Brittan in Brussels (one Lib Dem MEP reckoned: “if the Conservative Party had been how it used to be under Edward Heath, Nick would be a Tory, albeit a natural liberal, pro-Europe Tory like Chris Patten and Ken Clarke”). Laws is from a similar background. Adonis sums up the key issue thus: “Why did Clegg turn Right? Because, on the big economic questions, he is on the Right, not the Left; and so too is David Laws, his chief strategist”. Interesting also is Adonis’s assertion that,  ultimately, the Lib Dems allowed themselves to be steam-rollered by the Tories. I’ll endeavour to read ‘alternative’ accounts of this time in due course (eg. Clegg’s book “Politics: Between the Extremes” and Laws’s book “22 Days in May”).   
Lazy Thoughts Of A Lazy Girl (Jenny Wren): This is a short book of comic essays (Jenny Wren is a pseudonym), first published over a hundred years ago in 1891 (and republished by Hesperus in 2010) “offering a woman’s take on life’s preoccupations”… as the jacket of my copy of the book aptly describes it. It really is rather wonderful – imagine it being written by a female Jerome K Jerome and you’ve got it! Essay subjects include love, politics, afternoon tea, children+dogs and watering places! A lovely ‘find’ in Bristol’s “The Last Bookshop” for £2-50.
The Iceberg (Marion Coutts): Another bargain from “The Last Bookshop”. This remarkable, extraordinary book (published in 2014) is an account of Tom Lubbock’s three year battle with a brain tumour – located in the area controlling speech and language (he died in 2010, aged 53). It’s written by his wife (Coutts is a lecturer in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London). Lubbock was an artist, illustrator and chief art critic of The Independent. When Lubbock’s illness was first diagnosed in 2008, their son was 18 months old. I found the book completely compelling… and powerful, poignant, honest, blunt, sensitive, funny, enlightening and defiant. It’s beautifully written – it has a quiet eloquence, together with a poetic elegance. Her sentences are quite short, but to the point. The book charts the deterioration of Tom’s speech (somewhat ironically coinciding, of course, with their son’s developing language skills), but it also narrates how the three of them tried to cope with Tom’s inevitable death. It’s a wonderful book – probably my book of the year thus far (ie. of those I’ve read this year). I read it within two days, but I think it will live with me for a long, long time.
The Girl On The Train (Paula Hawkins): No, I haven’t seen the film (but, from what I hear, it’s a big disappointment compared to the book)! Hawkins’s book is a psychological thriller told through the eyes of three women. One of them, Rachel (who happens to be an alcoholic) catches the same commuter train every morning; she knows the journey by heart – including the fact the train will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. But, one day, she sees something that distresses her… and that’s when things get a bit dramatic! I certainly found the book compulsive reading – full of interesting, flawed characters and a clever storyline. If I have a criticism, I thought the ending was a little weak and somewhat tame compared with the rest of the novel - despite its various twists and turns. Nevertheless, a very good book – which I simply couldn’t put down.
Tarantula (Bob Dylan): I bought this Dylan short book a few months ago (his only fictional book incidentally, written in 1965/66 but first published in 1971). I have to admit that, at that time, I read the first few pages and gave up… it felt as if he’d written it when out of his head on drugs (or maybe I’d just drunk too much red wine?). Anyway, following his recent Nobel Prize for Literature (which I completely endorse), I thought I’d give it another try… Well, as much as I love Dylan’s music, I’m afraid this “experimental prose poetry collection” (as I’ve seen it described) wasn’t for me and I haven’t changed my initial assessment. Actually, I DID enjoy some of the ‘letters’… and his verbal playfulness (at times, he’s very clever!). The following is just a very brief sample, taken completely at random, to give you a flavour: “juicy roses to coughing hands assembling k pluck national anthems! all hail! the football field ablaze with doves k alleyways where hitchhikers wandering k setting fire to their pockets resounding with the nuns k tramps k discarding the weedy Syrians, surfs of half-reason, the jack k jills k wax Michael from the church acre, who cry in their prime k gag of their twins…”. Largely unintelligible to me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

lisa hannigan at the thekla...

I first came across Lisa Hannigan in 2002, as the ‘second voice’ on Damien Rice’s excellent “O” album - in particular the amazing song “Cold Water” (if you don’t know it, check it out!). I’ve enjoyed her music ever since then… but, until last night, had never seen her perform.
Ruth and I went to see/hear her at The Thekla (the place was absolutely crammed)… and Hannigan was absolutely stunningly good. Her soaring voice is so pure and precise (but also incredibly versatile). The songs were beautiful (I was familiar with most of them – her new album “At Swim” is lovely) and she really is VERY impressive ‘live’. It’s difficult to categorise her music – probably simplest to check out her website in order to learn more.
I love concerts at The Thekla (if you don’t know, it’s a big metal boat moored at the harbourside) – it’s a unique venue with an intimate atmosphere.
This could well have been my best concert EVER! It’s certainly up there.
If you get a chance to see her, do it!
Quite superb.
Photo: Lisa Hannigan on stage last night...
PS: Ruth+I got the best ‘seats’ in the house (ok, it’s all standing, but you know what I mean!). We were there right at the start of the evening and, thanks to Ruth’s insight, made our way to the balcony. It’s a pretty small balcony, but we stood on the extreme right hand side which meant we had a brilliant view over the small stage… and we didn’t have people trying to push past us or elbow us out of the way!
PPS: The most bizarre thing about the evening was that the bar had no red wine(!)… it’s a BAR for goodness sake! Who forgot to re-stock?!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

american honey…

Marcus and I went to the Watershed last night to see Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey”. This long film (it’s 164 minutes long!) is something of a ‘road movie’ – with, for me, hints of “Easy Rider” at times. It features a group of hard-partying teenagers criss-crossing America’s Midwest selling magazine subscriptions (and also frequently stealing food from shops and jewellery from households in the process). It’s a hard, raw life and each member of the group is given strict rules they have to adhere to (from their “queen bee”/American Honey(?), Krystal – brilliantly played by Riley Keough) if they want to survive.
If they don’t perform, they’re kicked out…

A girl named Star (played by the very impressive Sasha Lane), who lives on the fringes of society – living off discarded food from skips – comes across the group at a service station. Compared with her lifestyle, these youngsters look as though they’re having fun. They’re wild, exuberant and apparently carefree. She’s immediately attracted to one member of the group called Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf) – a sort of senior “lieutenant” – who asks her to join them (he gets commission for recruiting new members!)… she’s got nothing to lose.
Very quickly, Star and Jake form a magnetic, passionate(!) attraction for each other… which ultimately offends “queen bee” and underlines Star’s uncertain place within the group.

To be honest, I’m still not sure how I rated the film… I liked the soundtrack and the energy and spontaneity of the group, but I also found it all rather depressing (and too long?)… there was a powerful sense of hopelessness… and inevitability.
But that’s probably what Arnold is trying to say.
Life being lived on the edge.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

living in a parallel universe?…

I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as depressed, angry and hopeless about UK politics as I’ve found myself feeling over recent months (this last week has felt particularly disheartening).
Well, to be honest, this probably goes back to the start of 2015, at least… just before the last General Election (not that I was exactly a bundle of joy following the outcome of the 2010 election!).
I remember precisely how I felt when the exit poll results were announced on television at the end of 7 May… utterly shattered. I watched in downright disbelief. How could the electorate be so stupid?*  
I also remember thinking at that time just how strange it was that I appeared to inhabit a virtual world (via facebook!) in which most of my friends shared my thoughts and aspirations for the world, poverty, war, climate change, taxation, health, education, justice… (the list is quite long!).
Unfortunately, clearly, there was a parallel virtual world inhabited by people with largely opposite political viewpoints(!)… and these were obviously in the slight majority (hence the election result).
Sadly, as far as the real world was concerned, things haven’t been helped in the UK Parliament by a completely ineffective Opposition – which continues to fail to challenge the government over a wide variety of crucial issues.

Fast forward to 23 June 2016 - EU Referendum Day – and things got massively worse! The Referendum vote (which, incidentally, is ADVISORY, not mandatory… and which surely should therefore mean that parliament needs to vote on whether or not the UK stays in the EU?) has actually resulted in the government deciding to ‘pick+choose’ which of the MANY messages in the Brexit vote it wants to listen to (mainly immigration, sovereignty… it seems) and which it decides to ignore (once again, the list is long). For goodness sake, it wasn’t like a General Election – with an opportunity to reverse the decision in 5 years’ time – no, it’s a decision that affects our children, their children and their grandchildren. It didn’t matter that the resulting 52%:48% majority was so narrow. It didn’t matter that the campaign produced lies from BOTH sides of the argument (but far more from the Brexit people in my view).
Once again, I seemed to be living in facebook virtual world of people who largely shared my beliefs and aspirations, but lost out to the alternative facebook equivalent universe.
I remember feeling absolutely devastated by the vote for days and days (and, frankly, still haven’t recovered… as we continue to hear how our government interprets the voters’ wishes!).

It’s been interesting/depressing/alarming/reassuring talking to various people about the situation. One or two have suggested we all move to Scotland (only half-jokingly?) – assuming that the SNP will launch another Independence Referendum in the light of the EU decision… and that voters will opt to follow the ‘Remain’ option. Others complain about the country being London-centric – with huge concentration on the relatively small Westminster parliamentary ‘village’. Other people point to the fact that many of our population (especially in the north of England) feel ignored by politicians and that the EU Referendum represented a valid way of making an effective ‘protest’… and then there’s been the ‘Occupy’ movement too.
All this has set me thinking…
Given how much the world has changed over the past 25 years or so (since the internet, for example), would it really be possible – perhaps, before 2050 – for us to be living lives in which we could opt in or out of various ‘society options’? In other words, allow us (ok, I’m not going to be around by then!) to live our lives in a world of like-minded people – a bit like the facebook virtual world I seem to be inhabiting today, but where our life-style preferences can actually become reality?
Fantasy? Really? Who knows?
If someone had told you 10 years ago that we were going to be having driver-less cars in the near future, would you have believed them? If someone had told my father (he died 24 years ago) that we’d ALL have computers in our homes or that people would be able to contact each other instantly on tiny phones that each of us would carry around with us in our pockets, he would have laughed at our naivety…
Maybe reading Paul Mason’s book “Postcapitalism” has simply made me question how we do things… and how we’ll do things in the future, for example:  
“The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next”.
Yes, I could list a whole multitude of issues that, on the face of it, couldn’t be resolved in the sort of world I’m trying to imagine… and, no doubt, someone will also point me to extensive research currently being undertaking on a virtual reality world… or maybe it’ll just be a case of all the banks, governments, corporations or the establishment simply won’t allow it?!
Just remember this blog post in the year 2050(!)… you’ll be scratching your heads trying to remember the name of that old bloke who vaguely talked about the alternative, virtual world that had actually become a reality!
Yeh, right!
*: Actually, I’ve had huge reservations about so-called ‘democracy’ for several years: I certainly wouldn’t trust the UK electorate to vote on hanging, for example (and I obviously wouldn’t have allowed them to decide about the EU!)... I’m afraid I think we have a massively-biased press and media which are all too ready to inflict their views on what I regard as a sadly gullible population!
Photo: Hayward Gallery, London (Carsten Holler: 'Decision' exhibition 2015).

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

art projects…

It’s been a bit of a strange day… (no, rest assured, nothing to do with the Tory Party Conference!).
Today, couriers delivered the “results” of TWO art projects I’ve been working on.
One of them relates to an ongoing venture (my daily “One Day Like This” blog) and the other to a 2017 Calendar of some of my Bristol drawings (very much a one-off undertaking!).
Firstly, I organised a Blurb book to mark four years of my daily “One Day Like This” blog (since 12 September 2012, I’ve been posting one of my drawings or photographs every day). It’s purely a record, for my own reference – I made a similar book after the blog’s first year. This time, I’ve included a random collection of both drawings and photographs… but, as you can imagine (after posting more than 700 photographs and 700 drawings over the past four years!), the “final” selection represents only a very small percentage of the total output!
Secondly, I decided to put together some drawings of Bristol in the form of a calendar. This is a very speculative project, as you might imagine(!)… I hope to sell copies for £15 in perhaps three Bristol shops on the run-up to Christmas (and also to friends via facebook). I’ll post some images on facebook in due course… and will nag people incessantly until they finally give in and purchase their own highly-prized copy (obviously!).
Photo: my “Four Years Like This” Blurb book and the back page of my Calendar of drawings.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

september 2016 books…

More book stuff:
Coffin Road (Peter May): I didn’t think an “eco-thriller” (as described in the book’s cover blurb) would be my cup of tea, but I was very, very wrong! This is a very clever mystery novel, set on the Hebridean Isle of Harris (maybe the Scottish Highland connection had something to do with my passion for it!?) involving a man who finds himself bewildered and sodden on a deserted beach. He cannot remember who he is… and his only clue to his identity is a folded map of a path named the Coffin Road. I won’t tell you anymore, but I found it an absolutely riveting read… and will be definitely on the look-out for more of May’s work (eg. The Lewis Trilogy – including The Blackhouse). A brilliant book.
Postcapitalism (Paul Mason): I’ve long been an admirer of Mason’s journalism (he was Channel4 News’s former Economics Editor), but this is the first opportunity to read his extended thoughts in book form. This ambitious and challenging book analyses the capitalist world we live in and suggests that we’re about to enter a whole new world… of postcapitalism – in which the technical/information revolution is about to reshape our notions of work and value. It’s a brilliant book - complex, articulate and compelling (I’ve also written a separate, extended blog post about the book).
Troubles (J G Farrell): This is our Book Group’s latest book (first published in 1970). Set in 1919, a relatively-wealthy, English Major travels to Ireland to the Majestic Hotel and to the fiancée he “acquired” on a rash afternoon’s leave three years before. The engagement is short-lived, but he finds it difficult to leave the “alluring discomforts” of the crumbling hotel. It’s a strange and haunting (and frequently funny and ridiculous) story which mixes the emotions of a world emerging from the Great War, the upheaval and the politics of the Irish War of Independence and a harking back to life before the troubles. It’s also fascinating that this book, written at the time of the on-going Irish troubles of its day (eg. Londonderry civil rights march 1968 onwards), acts as a firm reminder of the guerrilla war fought in that country from 1919 to 1921. But it would be wrong if I gave the impression that this is simply a book about war/conflict… it’s almost entirely set within the walls/grounds of the shabby hotel “surrounded by gently decaying old ladies and proliferating cats”… it contains some intriguing characters and is a compelling, original story. I very much enjoyed it. Footnote: my one gripe would be that the entire book (some 450 pages long) is written without chapters or breaks (the best it can provide is the VERY occasional one line gap between paragraphs or, if you’re really lucky, a random isolated asterisk) and this chapter-less format definitely limiting my enjoyment… aargh!
Revelations of Divine Love (Julian of Norwich): This is the first time I’ve attempted to read the full account of the sixteen visions (or ‘shewings’) which appeared to Mother Julian (1342-1416)… and I have to admit that I found it pretty tough going (despite the excellent introduction and translation by Clifton Wolters). At the age of thirty, in May 1373, Julian was struck with a serious illness and, as she prayed and prepared for death, she received a series of sixteen visions on the Passion of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Saved from the brink of death, Julian of Norwich dedicated her life to solitary prayer and the contemplation of the visions she had received (“Julian” was the saint’s name of the church she was attached to - as an ‘anchoress’, she was walled up in a cell built on to the church, with food and drink brought to her). She wrote a short account of her visions probably soon after the event (and about 20/30 years later, she recorded down her understanding of them). She wrote in a straightforward ‘Middle English’ (she describes herself as “a simple creature unlettered”) and maintained that the visions provide us with the words of Christ, not hers. Whilst the book increased my awareness of Julian, I’m one of those people who find it difficult to accept that God reveals himself to us in this way. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable, thought-provoking text. I found the book somewhat repetitive (and I have to admit that I didn’t devote adequate time to reflect on the 86 chapters of Julian’s reflections!), although it did offer a mystical and philosophical insight into the medieval mind - whether you are a Christian or not.   
The Love Object and Other Stories (Edna O’Brien): Having recently read Edna O’Brien’s autobiography, I vowed that it was about time I read one of her novels… well, in the end, I opted for a book of short stories instead (eight in all, first published in 1970). Each of the stories has a ‘heroine’ and the synopsis on the book’s back cover sums things up perfectly in my view: with each of the heroines, in their different ways, swinging “between susceptibility and scepticism, between euphoria and agonising disappointment”. O’Brien has an impressive directness in the way she writes… and one senses that many of her characters are taken directly from her own life experiences. As you might imagine, the book (now nearly 50 years old) feels somewhat dated at times… but an enjoyable read nevertheless.