Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

A place called Winter

Patrick Gale‘s A place called Winter (Tinder, 2015) kicks off with a detailed description of the brutal ‘treatment’ meted out to unresponsive patients in a psychiatric hospital in Canada.  It then moves, as does protagonist Harry Cane, to Bethel, a progressive therapeutic community, where we eventually discover how he got to be there.  It’s a captivating tale of flight from prosperous Edwardian London to being part of the state-sponsored settlement of the Canadian prairies, in the early twentieth century: they gave you land to work; it became yours if you made a go of it.

Once our hero gets to Canada (and once you get over his sharing a name with the Tottenham Hotspur and England striker Harry Kane, who can’t stop scoring goals at the moment), so vivid and engrossing are the descriptions of his physical travails, his surroundings and his developing friendships – the sheer narrative power, the sense of achievement and fulfillment – that I completely lost track of the book’s structure, forgot about those painful opening pages and its therapeutic context.  Until the spectre of the Great War inevitably loomed and I thought: Oh please, not another literary tour of the trenches (Canada was part of the Empire, remember) and mental collapse.  But no, we are dealing here with violent trauma of a more directly personal and dramatic nature; not that the War doesn’t touch others who matter to him.  And when the narrative does return to Bethel, to almost the present, it gets really interesting.

There is so much going on in A place called Winter.  Why does Harry have to go to Canada?  To shield his relatives from shame and scandal.  I knew Patrick Gale had achieved something special here, but couldn’t nail it, so I resorted – something I rarely do in these pieces – to investigating what others had to say.  I didn’t have to look any further than an interview the author had given Max Lui for the Independent:

The challenge was to inhabit a homosexual life when there are no words to describe any of the things the character feels or does.

He succeeds.  And never mind sexuality, Harry’s whole life is one big series of discoveries.  The materially comfortable existence he leaves behind in London is a far cry from the lonely rigours of taming the wilderness in a very cold place.

As I say, so much going on.  In the two respectable English families that become enjoined in before the crisis – two brothers from the one marrying sisters in the other – there is potential to populate a decent novel of their own.  Then there’s the passage to Canada – a fascinating slice of social history – and the first meeting with one Troels Munck, a malevolent fixer, who keeps turning up again later as a classic Western bad guy: Evil like in a fairytale. But fascinating too“, says Gale in a piece at the back of the paperback edition I read.  

He’s taken on by a Danish family in Moose Jaw for a harsh apprentice year, learning the farming ropes, before he gets his own land: “The talk of wages, the whole business of being, for the first time in his life, employed, was so novel as to feel virtually meaningless.”  Talk about a new life.  Furthermore: “It was another mercy that the Jorgensens neither gave nor expected anything from him socially; he was an unregarded nothing“.  Something good comes out of the year though as relations warm.  The changes mapped reminded me of an Alice Munro story.

And then there’s the gruelling work establishing his own homestead, building a house, getting the land into shape to farm, near a place called Winter.  The winters – the cold, the snow – are crippling.  His developing relationships with sister and brother neighbours, Petra and Paul Slaymaker – Paul had had some “trouble in Toronto” – are the emotional core of the novel.  I don’t think I want to be any more specific than that; it’ll give too much away.  Dramatic events unfold involving Troels Munck.  There is a crisis and Harry has a breakdown, which takes us back to the horrendous opening chapter.

The plight of the peoples of the First Nations – Canada’s North American Indians – had been touched on earlier, but at therapeutic community at Bethel the book shifts into another gear.  In fascinating passages that reminded me of (but surpassed) the movie Little Big Man, Harry learns from fellow patient Little Bear, a Cree Indian: “You are a two-souls, Harry“:

She said something, in Plains Cree presumably, so softly he couldn’t quite catch it, but it sounded like ayarkwoo. ‘Translation is impossible, since it could mean either both man and woman or neither man nor woman. Some of us call it two-souls. You are a two-souls, Harry.’

It’s a blessing and a curse. […] You choose the basket willow over the bow, but there’s no rule to say you can’t use both,” he elaborates elsewhere.  Ultimately Little Bear is a tragic figure, but he is crucial to Harry’s recovery.  In the Cree Nation he was valued for what he was:

        You have to understand, as a two-souls I had a special position. I was being taught mysteries, things ordinary boys would never learn.’  […]
        ‘I was special and my father was proud of me. But to the missionaries I was an evil influence. I was fourteen, nearly fully grown, but to them I was an evil child. They cut my hair short and the evil they saw in me was beaten out day after day.’
        ‘Did you fight?’
        ‘No. I was always quiet and good and a swift learner. And their Jesus was so kind, kinder than some of our spirits. He reached out to me and still hasn’t let me go. For a meek, mild dead man, he has a tenacious grip.’

Harry returns to pick up the pieces in Winter.  There are important plotlines I’ve barely touched upon, but it all seems hopeful (though that’s just my reading – it’s left open-ended).

A place called Winter  was January’s Book Group book and – rare event – there were no dissenting voices as to what a fine piece of work it was.  It is an incredibly powerful piece of writing, with distressing and heart-breaking happenings aplenty.  The prose can sing but is never flashy, never fussy, never proselytising.  There is a vivid sense of people in a landscape, of energy being expended; when the threshing team comes to harvest Harry’s and the Slaymakers’ fields in Chapter 25, reading felt like being in a big widescreen cinema – Terrence Malick’s Days of heaven came to mind.

Yet for all the heaviness, A place called Winter can still amuse.  There is a nice little bit of banter about books and individual’s reading tastes in the snowed-up winters, and Gale interjects the odd flourish that tellingly tickles, like these that I’ll leave you with.  The first example is from Harry’s courting days, the last his first meal at Bethel (or was it at the Jorgenson’s – sorry):

They reached a wrought-iron bench in the shifting golden shade of a weeping willow, which seemed like a destination, so they sat. (p31)

Musical comedies were Harry’s idea of hell. He disliked their forced sentiment and cheeriness, their wildly improbable plots […] and the tension induced in him by knowing that at any moment a character would burst into song. (p61)

Lunch was a fairly punitive cheese and parsnip tart with beans and boiled potatoes. (p116)

Splendid stuff all round.



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tmmkgWhat is time?  How do we order the past, the present, and the future.  Why are artists interested in time?  How is art a machine, vehicle, or device for exploring time?  How is art a means by which time ‘travels’, and how does art permit us to travel in time?

This is the way in to MK Gallery‘s latest show, How to construct a time machine, from the press release of which that opening quote is taken.  You enter under Ruth Ewan‘s We could have been anything that we wanted to be (2011).  Yup, only ten hours.  It harks back (nostalgically?) to the revolutionary Republican calendar of 1793 in France.  The exhibition is a fruitful and entertaining way to spend some time, and we will return to it later in this post.  Meanwhile, let us consider the book as a time machine – two books, actually – and visit a period when England was actively trying to decide what it wanted to be more than usual.

LamentationLamentation (Mantle, 2014) is the sixth in C.J.Sansom‘s distinguished sequence of weighty historical crime novels featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, set in the reign of Henry VIII.  Innocent traitor (2006) was popular historian Alison Weir‘s first novel after nearly two decade’s worth of non-fiction mostly touching on the same era.  The lead protagonists of both novels witness the burning at the stake of the heretic Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546; Henry’s 6th wife – Katherine Parr – features strongly in each book as a good woman; and his prolonged miserable death is a very big deal in both – well it would be, you’d suppose.

That I read them one after another was pure coincidence; I’ve followed Sheldrake’s fortunes from the start in 2003’s Dissolution, while Innocent traitor was the latest Book Group book.  Add the spellbinding adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on the telly and a surfeit of Tudors could threaten, were the latter not so beautifully done; Thomas Cromwell – not one of Shardlake’s favourite people when alive – is long gone by the time the novels begin.  And what a time: when failure to believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine taken at Catholic Mass actually become the blood and body of Christ – could be fatal; when even sacramentarianism, the sop of metaphor, just wasn’t good enough.

Innocent traitorWhile its narrative is driven by events at – and it spends a fair amount of time in –  royal residences and the corridors of power, Lamentation also shows us Tudor London in its vivid entirety.  Along with the sights, sounds and smells of its mean streets and the river you get to see an interesting selection of London’s other ranks.  The drama of Innocent traitor, on the other hand, is almost exclusively played out in the opulent royal courts and in the mansions of the high and mighty.  Similarly, while the issue in Innocent traitor is seen simply as being between Catholic and Protestant, in Lamentation we get to meet some real radicals, those handy folk devils – socialist Levellers precursors no less – the Anabaptists.

Lamentation is an astute, gripping, sometimes violent, layers-of-the-onion conspiracy thriller, an examination of the nitty-gritty of realpolitik at close quarters, delivered with a beating heart and a finely tuned moral core.  A sub-plot involves a hopeless legal case Sheldrake has been engaged in, which functions as both light relief and to underscore what is going on in the wider world.  There is an easy continuity of Shardlake’s likeable social circle with previous volumes; you care about him and his friends.  He gets involved again against his better judgment, basically because he fancies the Queen; not that anything’s ever gonna happen but, you know, she’s got a nice smile.  What I found particularly interesting this time around is his growing disillusion with it all, his radicalisation.  Here’s the evidence.  Postmodernist intrusion? – maybe, but not beyond the realms after what he’s seen:

  • I no longer had sympathies with either side in the religious quarrel, and sometimes doubted God’s very existence … (p6)
  • Nicholas shook his head firmly.  “Now the war is over, prosperity will surely return.  And the security of everyone depends on people staying within the ranks to which they were born.  Otherwise we should have the anarchy of the Anabaptists.”
    That bogey again.  I said, “I confess the more I see of mankind, the more I think we are all of one common clay.” (p160)
  • “I thought the proceeds from the monasteries would be used to bring justice to the poor; that the King, as Head of the Church, would have a regard to what the old church did not.  Yet all that money went on extending Whitehall and other palaces, or was thrown away on the war.  No wonder some folks have gone down more radical paths.” (p225)
  • I looked over all these rich men and women and thought of Timothy, somewhere alone out on the streets.  The notion came to me that perhaps the Anabaptists had something after all: a world where the gulf between the few rich and the many poor did not exist, a world where preening peacocks like Thomas Seymour and Serjeant Blower wore wadmol and cheap leather might not be so bad a place after all. (p561)

Right on, brother Shardlake!  Who it is almost time to leave, save to ponder what it can mean as the hunchback lawyer says, when mightily surprised, “I sat bolt upright” – a miracle? – and wonder how he’s going to fare in the months and years to come after Henry’s death, which is the crisis at the heart of Alison Weir‘s book.  Something to look forward to.  I note that Sansom has already cleverly set his man up with a young mate who is to achieve a prominent position when Elisabeth is on the throne, but there’s a lot of muddy water to wade through before that happens.

Innocent traitorThe innocent traitor of Innocent traitor is Lady Jane Grey: at age 16, the 9-day queen, holder of the record for the shortest reign of any English monarch.  The girl was cruelly used as a pawn by her parents and various others at court in order both to secure a Protestant succession to the throne and as a blatant exercise in self-aggrandisement.  She ended up – spoiler alert – quite unjustly, because of the specific utter stupidity of her very own father, losing her head, as happened quite often in those times.  I knew nothing of her story before reading this, but I do now, and for this sympathetic retelling I am grateful.

I wasn’t quite as annoyed by certain aspects of Innocent traitor as some in my Book Group.  Because of time constraints (I was reading Lamentation) I skim-read a lot of it and so missed the others’ detailed objections to the prose, the unlikely adverbial and adjectival elaborations, that particularly got up people’s noses.  The tale is told in first person mode by a number of participants including Jane herself, her Lady Macbeth of a mother (the book opens with her giving birth to Jane), her loyal loving serving woman Mrs Ellen, Queen Katherine Parr, Queen Mary to be, and a couple of others, with the final words coming from The Executioner (which was rather a nice touch, I thought).  The trouble is, they all sound the same, with practically no variation in voice at all, even from Mrs Ellen, the closest to a pleb we get in these pages.  As first person narratives they work better as third person voiceovers for a tv documentary.  The one that really made us laugh in bemusement was Jane’s, “Today I am four year’s old,” followed by some elaborate scene-setting with no concessions to toddler talk, which might have been interesting.  And her mum telling us, early on, “After two disastrous marriages, and a cataclysmic quarrel with the Pope, my uncle, King Henry VIII, at last has a son and heir” is no isolated example.

I was moved by Jane’s plight, I’ll admit, but I didn’t cry, so according to the quote on the cover of the paperback edition, I “must have a heart of stone“.  “What young girl would not giver her all to be Queen of England?” Tom Seymour (for it is he) asks rhetorically.  Alas, not poor bullied Jane, the kind of gal who scorns all the young nobles out a-hunting: “Their sport is but a shadow to the pleasure I find in Plato.  Poor souls, it seems to me they do not know what pleasure means,” she tells her tutor.  Maybe, but she didn’t have a chance to have much fun.

Back to the Time Machine …

Time machineThere is much to engage with in How to construct a time machine – Mark Wallinger’s highly reflective aluminium TARDIS which “disappears into the space-time continuum by reflecting its own surroundings” and the butterflies ‘flying’ in the zoetrope, to mention but two – but the thing that really absorbed me, and I shall probably go back and watch it all the way through, just because, was Thomson & Craighead‘s The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010), a re-editing of the classic 1960 film of the H.G.Wells novel featuring Rod Taylor as the time traveller; that’s right, only the one with the actual time machine prop the lads successfully bid for on eBay in an episode in the first series of The Big Bang Theory .  Each word of dialogue, and the spaces in between after the last words of a sequence (I appreciated the rest), appear in alphabetical order.  Never mind the artspeak justification, it works because you vaguely know the story, but it also works … beyond narrative.  I guffawed loudly a number of times in the 15 minutes I was in there in two sessions (it runs for 1 hour, 36 minutes) and hung around for specific words: ‘love’, for one – just the once, as it happens.  You probably have to experience it to understand why I’m so enthusiastic, but for the high frequency words like ‘time’, ‘machine’ or ‘future’ the rapid fire succession of speakers and backgrounds is a joy to behold.  If I were to meet the perpetrators I would not be able not to ask whether they took at least some inspiration from the notorious Short f***ing version compilation of The Big Lebowski(Go on: you probably want to).

Before I move on I’ll say something about the gallery experience.  Another of the exhibits is a small (non-flat) television showing a performance of John Cage‘s 4’33 – you know, the one where the concert pianist sits at the piano and ‘plays’ silence (in three movements) for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  The telly’s on the floor and on the wall above it there’s a facsimile of the original score sheets (oh, yes – full of rests).  Now you can see the same bit of film right here on your computer or other digital device in much better picture (and sound) quality, but … context … it’s just different, worth being there.

Briefly, some other cultural adventures …

In chronological order:

Scribal Feb 2015

Archivists of the future please note: Glass Tears were nowhere to be seen.

HB Scribal 5What can I say?  It was Scribal‘s fifth birthday and there was cake courtesy of Caz.  The mighty Antipoet were mighty lots of things, among them being rhythm section to the wonderful Dodobones, who were surviving admirably after their self-imposed cover-a-day for a month stint on YouTubeMitchell Taylor showed a sensitive side but still managed to shout/sing “Fascist scum” with some glee at another song’s end; shame because his The blood of St George stands well enough (nay, better) without it.  New Bard Pat Nicholson continues to blossom in the role.  Can’t remember much else about it.

SSSAnother grand night at York House for S.S.Shanty! 3, a benefit for the RNLI. (for non-MK readers the SS stands for Stony Stratford, as well as the traditional nautical nomenclature).  An acapella evening of great variety with, naturally, a maritime theme one way or the other.  We had the many-handed Sloop Groggy Dogg from the shores of Woburn Sands, barber shop from B-Flat, a round the world trip from Oxford’s Manchoir, and the stirring Trim & Doxy up from Liverpool (one of whom played accordion).  The sheer power of The Five Men Not Called Matt (all 6 of ’em) gets me every time, with, this night, the occasional sweet bonus of aiding and abettment from Michèle Welbourn.  All the beer was drunk.  Unexpected were the low-level murmurings of demurral at the last mentioned (wait for it) when MC Ken kicked off the evening by addressing the assembled multitude, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and UKIP supporters.”

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action.  Photo (c) Alison Holden.

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action. Photo (c) Alison Holden.

esAnd then there was Matthew Bourne‘s splendid production of Edward Scissorhands at the theatre.  Has to be one of the highlights of the year already.  I’ll say it again: I don’t do ballet, but I do do Matthew Bourne.  What’s to add?  All the superlatives.  Even though I’ve never actually seen the Tim Burton movie, I’ll presume you know the story.  It had everything.  Energy, humour, wit, rhythm, romance, compassion, satire, a touch of goth.  Brilliant moves, exhilarating ensemble work, suitably corny stage business and a great set.  Glorious shiny happy ’50s American suburban stereotypes paraded and parodied, and the fears lurking behind.  Dominic North as Edward was magnificent.  Was moved greatly by the dramatic, then poignant, ending.  And we got snowed on.  Biggest genuine standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of.

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Stony Words 2015QI on the telly Friday night and in the general ignorance round there’s mention of a musical instrument I’ve never heard of.  Saturday night (a while back now, Jan 24) I get to see and hear one played.  The theorbo is a bass lute.  Given that people were smaller back then, it’s a bit of a monster.  Along with the viol, Mr Simpson’s Little Consort put it to good use in the delivery of their sacred, profane and bawdy repertoire.

pepys-gifford-1-300x292Ayres and graces

Now in its 11th year, StonyWords! – Stony Stratford’s literary festival – kicked off with Ayres and Graces at York House – John Alexander in full drag reading selections from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, interspersed with music of the Restoration period courtesy of aforesaid four-piece Consort; or music from the period interspersed with readings from … you get the picture.  It was a game of two halves, the first richly populated with the bits Mr Knox, our history master, had taken joy in hinting at back then (the complete unexpurgated edition hadn’t wasn’t published til a decade later) – Pepys as recidivist philanderer and whorer (never again, he says … again), Pepys the chronicler of his bowels and more.  In the moving second half the wig came off and we were living matter of factly through the sights and fears and practicalities of life in the Plague year of 1665 – the parallels with ebola impossible to put to one side, it was that vivid – and witnessing the progress of the Great Fire of London a year later.  A fine evening of edifying entertainment.



The Rainborowes

Back to the 17th century the next Monday to the Library to see Adrian Tinniswood talking with engaging enthusiasm about his latest book,  The Rainborowes: pirates, Puritans and a family’s quest for the Promised Land (Cape , 2013).  Quite a bunch, indeed, crisscrossing the Atlantic (no, really), with a particularly sad tale of one of the much-married women failing to find happiness in the New World.  Standout, however, has to be Thomas –



seaman, English Civil War siege-master and radical – a leading Republican soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army and a significant contributor to the Putney Debates – the post-victory OK-what-are-we-gonna-do-now discussions forced on the Grandees by the more radically democratic Levellers.  Fascinating stuff.

Interesting discussion at the end as to the respective merits of the hardback and paperback covers, with author and small minority at the meeting holding out for the hardback (that’s King Charles’s head coming off) as opposed to the author’s agent, paperback publisher and the majority favouring the historical genre design in the shops.

Bardic trials 2015The Bardic Trials

A new tradition instituted in this, the fifth of the annual Bardic Trials.  Grey Rod, bedecked in academic gown, ceremonially knocking three times to gain entrance.  Regardless of the rod not actually being grey [but see Comments below], it would appear the position also bears some responsibility as returning officer for the casting and  counting of the popular vote, this year to be done with cheap metal washers as opposed to the traditional post-it note.  Given that Grey Rod was Stephen Hobbs, this rather scuppered the redoubtable Antipoet‘s passionate rendering, in the course of another wondrous set, this time featuring some new material – of their tuneful rousing bit of music hall chantery (composed, tis said, on Christmas day) Stephen Hobbs for Bard.

The Bardic Pencil is passed on.  (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

The Bardic Pencil is passed on. (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

At the end of the day it was Pat “the Hat” Nicholson who won out over storyteller Red Phoenix  by a single metal washer after the initial field of four had been whittled down for the penalty shoot-out.  It was a full house and the crowd was vocal throughout – another grand night.  Let us now hail the new Bard.  His Autobiographical ode to Stony Stratford, recalling his family’s Saturday shopping trips to Stony from Whaddon when he was 6 and lorries hurtled down the A5, for the High Street was still a trunk road back then, was the outstanding competition piece on the night.  He’ll be a worthy Bard, and I hope some of his Bardic duties at least will be accomplished in song with the more familiar guitar in hand; nothing in the rules against it.

Troubadour Reunion

 And so, back to York House on Friday for Ian Entwistle on acoustic guitar accompanied by, and on occasion featuring individually, the voices of 4 natural women (with a touch of recorder now and then), celebrating the singer-songwriters of the early ’70s – James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young, Cat Stephens to the fore.  Quality performances ensured the sell-out crowd had a great evening that was testament to the emotional power of those great songs on people the first time around, back then.  There were moist eyes in every direction, and I for one had never quite realised what James Taylor meant to women of that generation; it was Neil Young’s Old man that did it for me.

That finished early enough for us to catch a bit of Speakeasy’s From Bard to verse evening down the road in The Bull.  Just in time to catch the new Bard – still sans guitar – strutting his stuff, declaiming from the centre of the floor as if to the manor born.

The Box Ticked at the Crauford

TBT at CraufordSaturday, eschewing StonyWords! for the nevertheless highly literate charms of the “quirkessentially British power pop” that is The Box Ticked in the bar at the Crauford Arms in neighbouring Wolverton.  This was the opening gig of the bands’ winter tour of Milton Keynes.  Two full and very fine sets with some shaping up nicely new stuff.  You can read all about it here, on their very own blog and website.  I suppose a satire warning is warranted before you go there; this, for instance from the blog, about the second gig of the tour:

Having found a place to crash for the night with people we know, the weary but excited Box Ticked made their way from Wolverton over towards Stony Stratford for the mid-way point of their tour of Milton Keynes.

And this from their report of the third gig on the tour:

There was a huge cheer at one point, which I’m happy to accept was a direct response to the chorus of Musical Differences, but may have been something to do with the rugby.

For the uninitiated Musical differences chronicles the supposed, um, musical differences of the two writers in the band, opposing the Carpenters with the Pistols; the point being … and it was the England-Wales Six Nations game.  But back to the slightly cavernous Crauford, where the words of the excellent Plugging away

The room is cold and quiet
And well below capacity

were delivered with a certain ironic edge.  Not that there weren’t people there (there were, but it was cold), just that the cool kids who knew the band were all sitting to the side.  Was a pleasure to be there.  And those very lyrics would ring out with a very different cadence to a packed crowd very soon in the future.

Pride and another Gathering

PrideSunday and Stony Scala Film Club is showing Pride (2014) at The Cock.  Another sell-out crowd.  Great British film about the travails of lesbian and gay group from London who set out to adopt a pit and end up in South Wales, a true story no less.  Roller coaster of emotions as they achieve a certain acceptance from most of the mining village but become an embarrassment to the local NUM, all this as AIDS/HIV is rearing its head.  Lots of great little cameos and nice little touches reflecting the times.  It brought back memories of what was a horrible time for the left in Britain, and my only criticism was its giving full rein to a sentimentality that failed to address the question of Scargill’s disastrous leadership of the miners at all.  (Slightly disturbing to discover Sherlock‘s Moriarty running Gay’s the Word bookshop.)  And so, full of sadness and gladness …

Scribal Fox… over the road and up a bit to the installation of the Scribal Gathering expansion pack in full swing at The Fox & Hounds.  The room is full, the energy high, new faces on the stage and in the audience along with the usual suspects.  A fine short quirkessential set this time from those Box Tickers again.

Literary Quiz 

Last event of StonyWords! 11 was the literary quiz.  I was on the Evil Y-nots team, amerry band of brothers.  Honour saved, we came second last.  But the teasing out of Bladerunner as an answer was worth a high-5, and this may well be the last time in my life it will ever be useful to know that Anne McCaffrey wrote the Dragonsingers of Pern sequence of SF novels.  And apparently ‘Oh, fuck off’ was not one of the houses at Hogwarts.  Innovatory new format this year – each team brings along a set of questions for one round – to overcome the handicap of actually winning (not that …), which used to be you had to set next year’s quiz.  Worked well, set a decent precedent.

Oh, and there was the History Mystery: a charter in time creative chronicling competition.  Procrasturbation meant I didn’t manage to get an entry in in time.  I did have an idea, though.  The thing is, as well as this year’s 800 years of Magna Carta, it was 1215 when King John visited Stony Stratford, and, hearsay has it, giving Stony its own charter granting township status.  Except nobody’s ever seen said piece of parchment.  There’s no documentation.  So the competition was to speculate what might have happened to it.  My idea – and it won’t be the only one, I’m sure – was time traveling mischief.  This is what the judges were spared:

        “Oh bloody hell, Wells.  Not you again.”  Finding himself on the banks of a river, coming round from yet another crack on the head, Herbert George Wells, author of the purportedly fictional book The time machine, was the last person Samuel Clemens wanted to see.  His own book, published under the pseudonym of Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, was another traveller’s tale marketed as fiction to keep the reality of time travel secret.  “We must stop meeting like this.”
“Twain, you old bastard,” responded the pompous little philanderer, whose friends may have called him HG [must look that up],  “Happened again, has it?  You really ought to wear something to protect that soft head of yours.”
Anyway, at some stage along comes King John, who autographs the Charter, and one way or another – maybe the two authors end up fighting over the Charter for some reason, ripping it asunder, the pieces falling into the river; or one of them, suddenly excited by inspiration, the prospect of another masterpiece, uses the back of it to take notes on; or, indeed, for some other less savoury use (do I have to spell it out?)

Charter or no, the Stony of StonyWords! 11 – and I haven’t covered it all at all – was a good place to be.

Shadows in the nightBob Dylan

While all this was going on Mr Dylan released a new platter for our entertainment and enjoyment.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s an unlikely 10-song strong collection of popular songs from the Great American Songbook which have been previously recorded by Frank Sinatra.  It only takes up, no – fills, 40 minutes a go – good old vinyl LP length – of your time.  Amazingly enough, it works.  Singing sweetly (or as sweetly as, you know, but still sweetly), accompanied by his sparingly augmented touring band, slow-paced, with the pedal steel player in a crucial role, it’s rather wonderful.  You’ll never hear the songs quite the same again.  Yearning, regret, acceptance they’re all in there in abundance.  The man owns Some enchanted evening, (“Fools give you reasons / Wise men never try“) and That lucky old sun, the closer, just rolls around heaven all day.  It’s lovely.

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New Year’s Eve I was Trotsky’s cousin
on a boat to England
in the company of Russian aristos
a proto-capitalist & a journo,
escaping the Revolution.
Spoiler alert:
it was not me what done it.
Funny how
with each murder mystery party
you’re a part of
you hanker to be the one that did the deed;
I was not alone in this thought.

Nostalgic for a touch of Andy Stewart
or Jimmy Shand in that night,
for Kenneth McKellar taking
the low road,
Chick Murray’s drollery.

Austin 6Morris Major
New Year’s Day
and the motors are out
in Market Square,
ancient and not so modern.
Lucky with the weather this time:
an Austin 6 and a Morris Major,
my pick this year
another so cool
blue Citroen.


In the first few days of 2015
Cinderella, an hour in the dentist’s chair,
a downbeat movie,
misunderstood hilarity at an open mic,
a funeral and
Je suis Charlie.

15209_10154947389425500_1811519934788905596_nFirst panto for me in decades
but this was Stony’s own
So, hi Danni, hi you two,
great job Caz, everyone;
Buttons’ pissed off at being called
Zipper and Velcro fresh jokery to me,
the Ugly Sisters
metaphorical (rhyming) blisters.
Had a great time.  Oh yes I did.

Out of the Cock and the engrossing gloom
Inside Llewyn Davies
– “a study in failure” –
into the Old George,
guffawing, trying to remember
where we’d seen a young man
with ‘TWAT’ written on his forehead
looking into the mirror
puzzled: what was ‘TAWT’ was supposed to mean?
No, sorry Plucky, we weren’t laughing
at you singing Dolly’s Jolene.
(Benidorm, as it happens).

At the funeral
nearly blubbing to the Beatles,
Lennon’s In my life.
Cliff was our Ringo,
our goalie, a fast bowler supreme.
Charming, handsome: a gentleman.
Different paths taken
from school, so seldom seen.
Shame; no blame.

Scribal Jan 2015Another cracker of a January Scribal Gathering:
A fine energised set
from Mark ‘slow hand’ Owen.
Standing up, belting out
a hard-driving new song to finish.
The dapper (I want that jacket) Alan Wolfson:
cultured bewhiskeredly, a delight.
No stranger to rhyme or dirt, adroit.
Delivered this little gem
(lifted here verbatim from his FB ©AW):

Je suis Charlie Hebdo, tu es Charlie Hebdo, il est Charlie Hebdo, elle est Charlie Hebdo, nous sommes Charlie Hebdo, vous êtes Charlie Hebdo,
ils sont Charlie Hebdo. elles sont Charlie Hebdo.
The sound of a million people conjugating in the centre of Paris.

Great and lesser spotted
woodpeckers in the singular
on different days
in the local nature reserve.
An hour in the dentist’s chair
and a brand new tooth.
Biting the Nutribullet,
supping green goo
from a red wine glass.

And now we can say something
if there’s talk of
Breaking bad;
yup, good as everybody said.
Broadchurch is losing me,
and the
Big Bang Theory a series too far,
whimpering; Penny,
grow back your hair.

Old for new metal
Saw rats
and cats
at the MK Materials Recycling Facility,
an interesting time to be had.
Heath Robinson lives!
State-of-the-art, proud
and getting prouder:
Oh, the excitement building over the road
– we’re in a race with Edinburgh –
the sheer poetry of the
Residual Waste Treatment Facility
“Diverting black bag waste from landfill.”

Sipped spiced cider
wassailing the apple trees at York House
on Saturday, turning back time with
the Julian calendar and the Turning Wheel.

Linford Wood 1Linford Wood 2
up with old friends again
in Linford Wood, and finding
some new ones too.

Can’t not but mention
“Manchester City 0, Arsenal 2”
on Sunday; celebrating inside
at The Old George
with The Outside This
The Last Quarter
& the lovely Ugly beauty
at Aortas.

The annual January jigsaw
nearly done, but …
Jigsaw 2015

And so it’s adieu for now with a couple of January songs, subtly chosen because they have the month in the title.  No, not that one; apology due if that released an earworm, and duly given.  Maybe this one of these will banish it:



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Advertisements for myselfThere will always be the odd book or record you regret the disposing of.  This is an inevitable rule of life.  Norman Mailer‘s Advertisements for myself (1959) went the way of the charity shop in the last major house-moving cull.  I reasoned duplication.  That I had the crucial essayy, The white negro: superficial reflections on the hipster, his protestgroundbreaking and influential essay of sub-cultural analysis, in Protest: the Beat generation and the Angry Young Men (1958), another bizarre anthology (bought in a charity shop) that had Kingsley Amis rubbing shoulders with Allen Ginsberg, John Braine with Bill Burroughs; something was happening but they didn’t quite know what it was.  (The white negro is now readily available online).

This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, however.  In one of Mailer’s advertisements he pugilistically discussed his rivals in the Great American Novel stakes and said of Truman Capote that he was “the most perfect writer of my generation” – a quote you can find in many places.  I’d like to know now what else he said about him because I’m floundering (and I was not the only one in book group) as to why it has taken us five intense reading decades to get round to a book as exquisitely written as Truman Capote‘s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958).  Probably it was just that back then very notion of a place like Tiffany’s was anathema to us, rang all the wrong aspirational bells, for a, um, generation that wanted to change the world.  (It still is and does for that matter, but we move on.)

Capote - Breakfast at TiffanysAs I was saying, a book as exquisite … that opens so spellbindingly:

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.

That for instance is a bit of an understatement, because the narrator, a struggling writer, is unlikely to have met a woman like Holly Golightly before or since.  She’s entrancing, annoyingly impulsive, adorable.  There’s no denying she’s a prostitute in good time gal’s clothing but that’s just temporary, a practical career move, part of the process until something better turns up: “Anyway, home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking.”  She hasn’t got the blues (she claims) but will admit to “the mean reds.”  Set in the mid-1940s, hers is an extraordinary tale of transformation, an American dream, no less.  As OJ Berman, who once tried to manage her, says, “She’s crazy. A phony. But a real phony, you know.”  She scuppers his business plan for her on the West Coast because, “I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing.”  There are social snapshots galore, lots of lovely delicate descriptive touches and brilliant dialogue.  There’s a narrative that pulls you in, a sort of denouement and a teasing mystery that remains.  I loved it, will read it again and again (it’s a novella, just over 100 pages in paperback).  There’s also the bonus of another 42 to add to that celebrated number’s roster:

… by the way, is Hemingway old?”
‘In his forties, I should think.’
‘That’s not bad. I can’t get excited about a man until he’s forty-two.’

B at TI loved the book so much I got a DVD of the iconic 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie to see how it shaped up; not something I make a habit of, but Holly in the book – and that rare quality I see now of Audrey Hepburn as I remembered her on film – both enchant and intrigue.  I’m offering nothing new here, but for the record, in the book she’s got short hair and he’s had a book actually published.  Though much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim, there is no wild horse ride through the streets of New York in the film and the ending differs criminally (I cannot stress the latter enough).  Crucially, there is no Joe’s Bar, so the essential framing narrative of the book is nowhere to be seen.  In the book we are looking back, speculating – many years on – on what might have become of Holly; just the hint of her re-appearance (a contemporary wood carving chanced upon in Africa) brings three men together again in the bar that was a part of their’s and Holly’s lives.  In the film – it’s still on the whole a decent watch in its own right if you can get over the disparities – one of these men is what can now only be seen as a deeply offensive (and even then demented) performance by Mickey Rooney as a comic Japanese.  And that Moon river theme song that’s all over the film: it’s a perfectly good song, I’ll grant, but in the book what Holly plays and sings on the balcony in what we would call these days a rich slice of Americana.

Party of the Century The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black-and-White Ball-726790I suspect – notwithstanding the contemporary success of Capote’s innovatory ‘true crime’ ‘faction’ (or ‘non-fiction novel’), In cold blood (1966) – that it was Breakfast‘s association with the rich milieu of Tiffany’s and, visually, via film posters, the other high society, the so-phisticated one, that kept him off our to-be-read piles and lists back then; not where we wanted to go at all.  So it’s interesting to read about Capote’s ‘victory’ bash at the New York Plaza in no less a counter-culture year than 1966.  Certainly ‘in crowds’ were an element of, say, 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival or London’s 14 hour Technicolour Dream, and the odd fashionable designer and their work may well have been in evidence, but high couture it was not.  You can see why writers like Richard Brautigan or – Gawd help us, Hermann Hesse – caught our attention more.

Deborah Davis‘s Party of the century: the fabulous story of Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball (Wiley, 2006) is both fascinating and nauseating in turn.  Flushed with the success of In cold blood Capote was flaunting it.  From the start this was going to be the party; how hideous a notion is ““People are practically committing suicide because they didn’t get invitations,” Truman crowed.”  (I shudder a trifle here when I hear an echo of Frasier‘s Niles and Frasier Crane, but that is high comedy).  Try some of Davis’s chapter headings: The In Crowd; Making the List; The Place to Be; “Have you heard?”; How to be lovely; Plumage – all the angst and expense.  While her style is mostly dead-pan reportage, irony plays alongside an effusive undercurrent as she describes the antics of the disparate melange of invitees: Truman’s Swans (the pampered beautiful international society women he courts), the Womens Wear Daily fashion crowd, politicians, the Kennedy connections, traditional New York ‘society’, the In true blood Kansas connections, and a selection of creatives headed by Frank Sinatra and his new wife, Mia Farrow.  Rock and roll it was not (though there was an element of “twisting and frugging“).

As it turns out the party, while judged a success on the whole, turned out to be a fine de siècle affair for that particular tout le monde while setting the high water mark of Truman Capote’s literary career; and it was more than just the writing that was in decline – a sad denouement.  Davis gives us an insightful short life of the writer before and after the Black & White Ball and it comes as a bit of a shock to discover how much of himself there is in Holly Golightly, never mind his mother.  But looking back, Peter Duchin, the bandleader at the Ball and a privileged insider at such functions, said that the party “closed an era of elegant exclusiveness and ushered in another of media madness – the one in which we still live.”

Funnily enough, Norman Mailer was invited and went.  I have to say I was disappointed at this, but somewhat reassured when I learn that as the rich, the great and goodish arrived and were instantly recognised in all their finery, the press had to ask various writers attending who they were, but

The literary bad boy was an exception. Because he was well-known, there was all the more reason to criticize him for wearing a rumpled trench coat that even he described as “dirty gaberdine.”

Brilliant.  Norman Mailer, soon to write another great ‘faction’ himself – The armies of the night: history as a novel; the novel as history (1968), his account of the anti-Vietnam war march on the Pentagon, and also the first hardback book I ever bought for myself – turned up to the grand masqued ball looking like Lieutenant Columbo.

As can be seen from the book jacket I’ve used for Breakfast at Tiffany‘s above, there are three short story companion pieces. A house of flowers didn’t do much for me and A diamond guitar (a prison tale) was OK, but the last, A Christmas memory is an absolute beaut of a Christmas tale that deserves to be better known in the UK, and would make a welcome change from the never-ending round of A Christmas Carols on telly.  Pretty much autobiographical, it’s the story of the friendship of a young boy and his friend, an elderly and simple cousin, and the cake-making highlight of their year; think Snowman in a rural American kitchen (without the flying).

And for all that I’ve said against the movie, the edition of Breakfast at Tiffany‘s I’ve just bought – there is a choice, even in Penguin paperback – is one with Audrey Hepburn on the cover.

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Makine - Brief lovesAnother Andreï Makine book to love and praise to the skies.  Brief loves that live forever (MacLehose Press, 2013) is an exhilarating read, the latest in a long line.  For the uninitiated he’s a Russian émigré, born 1957, granted political asylum in 1987, who writes in the language of his adopted country.  Don’t let that put you off.  His take on the ex-Soviet union and Russia is a deeply nuanced one; his focus is on the individual’s experience, and he delivers exquisite glimpses from human encounters and experience that stick with you.  He takes you to unexpected places, brief special moments in timeAnd this aint no magic realism.

Brief loves that live forever is not a big book – 175 pages, of which only 139 are actual text – but like his other slim publications, it speaks volumes.  It is invariably my experience that my first impulse on finishing a Makine is to go back to the beginning and start again, not out of any bewilderment, but out of sheer wonder and melancholic joy – reading him (and his faithful translator, Geoffrey Strachan, of course) feels so good.  And with Brief loves that impulse is particularly apt because the last chapter gives light to an enigma – a dark lady, even – at the heart of the first.

Our narrator is a child, an orphan, of the post-Stalin years, when the dictatorship has lost its brutality but none of its tedium and dullness.  The book opens with him as a young man at one of the big showpieces, a May Day parade in Moscow, accompanying a physically broken man across town.  His companion, a thrice imprisoned dissident, Dmitri Ress, who had been given the nickname ‘Poet’ in the camps “though I did not know if its implication was disparaging or approving“, identifies three categories of people at the parade – “placid sleepwalkers […], some cynics and a few marginal rebels” – imparts his conclusion:

But there are … There are also those who have the wisdom to pause in an alleyway like this and watch the snow falling.  Notice a lamp being lit in a window.  Inhale the scent of burning wood.  This wisdom only a tiny minority among us know how to live by it.  In my case, I’ve found it too late.  I’m only just getting to know it.  Often, out of habit, I go back to playing the old roles.  I did it just now, when i was making fun of those poor wretches on their platform.  they’re blind.  They’ll die never having seen this beauty.

Here Makine is pretty much making explicit his modus operandi as a writer.  The rest of the book is his narrator looking back on six episodes from his life, from orphanage and school and army to where he is now that have allowed him, or witnessed them in others, such transcendental glimpses, illuminated by the love between people of the book’s title.

Then, with all my being I felt I was wildly, desperately in love. Not only with Maya and her dark locks flying in the wind as she ran. But also with the plants that swayed as she passed, and with that grey, sad sky and the air that smelled of rain. I was even in love with that old piece of farm machinery with flat tyres, sensing that it was quite essential to the harmony that had just been created before my eyes …

He brings subtle linkages of people, locales, structures into play throughout. What I write of here hardly scratches the surface of the richness of experience to be found in this book’s pages

It may be a short book but there is so much going on – thought, feelings, acts – all played out against the background of the great flaweded and further failing experiment that was Communism, the ideals, sacrifices, and achievements of which Makine has regularly shown, in his novels, a certain – though never card-carrying – nostalgia.  For him the simple walls-come-tumbling-down dissidence is too easy.  “And then what?” he asks; you could accuse him of writing with the advantage of hindsight, but he’s been pretty consistent all along in his writings.

In the penultimate chapter Captives in Eden he, by now an ex-soldier convalescing from wounds got in a helicopter accident in Afghanistan, accompanies Kira, a childhood friend, now a dissident samizdat photo-journalist, on a trip to a ‘model orchard’, where the trees cover an area 10 by 14 miles and are planted so densely that bees cannot penetrate most of the plantation, so the blossom is never pollinated and so they bear no fruit.  This a classic symbol for the futility of the whole collectivist enterprise.  And yet the experience of being there, as they walk towards its centre, “that useless orchard’s beautiful madness“, the trees full of white blossom, is delirious, hallucinatory.  There is an extraordinary passage of skinny dipping political dialogue when they discover a pond at the orchard’s centre and she – they are not lovers – chides him into the water.  She thinks he is stupid

not to have totally rejected the world we were born into and grew up in, which is now dying of a pitiful and often ridiculous old age. I ought to spit out this past, deride the people who had the misfortune to live through it; that way I could satisfy Kira and her friends. How can I explain to her that the past of this country, which is on the brink of disappearing for ever, also contains our childhood? […] … Must that memory also be rejected? And this apple orchard too? And its intoxicating beauty? Must it be derided, seen as a failure on the part of a society that promised a dream-like future and has lamentably run aground? But derided in the name of what other future?

As indeed Dmitri Tress had predicted and feared way back watching that May Day parade at the beginning of the novel

Tomorrow this rotten regime falls apart. We find ourselves in the capitalist paradise and the people who step up onto this grandstand are millionaires, film stars, suntanned politicians.

And, looking back now on that orchard adventure, our narrator can only sadly say

the project cherished by Kira’s friends came to fruition. Communism collapsed in a great tragicomic hurly-burly of palace revolution, liberal promises, putsches, appalling economic pillage, edifying credos and contempt for the old and weak.

I could go on quoting from Brief loves that live forever for quite a while yet, but I will desist.  Say the word, the word is love; “love is in essence subversive.”  Andreï Makine is a great writer:

The fatal mistake we make is looking for a paradise that endures …

What remains is a fleeting paradise that lives on for all time, having no need of doctrines.

The Unbearable Lightness of BeingUnbearable lightness 1988

Purely coincidentally – it’s not as if I’m on a Cold War binge or something (even if A short history of tractors in Ukrainian is the next book group book  too, and comic though it is, that doesn’t skirt the hardships under the Soviet regime) – but I recently watched the film of Milan Kundera’s The unbearable lightness of being and (as well as falling in love) it struck me that the world would be a much better place if the tired and stupid old men, the pre-psychedelic dead- and dunderheads of the Kremlin had opted to give the Hungarians their head in 1956, and more crucially, post-Bay of Pigs, chosen not to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968.  What might have happened then, back in the USSR?  Is there a more depressing and unimpressive (not so much scary or horrendous, though he was not without his moments) but just uninspired and depressing ex-head of state than Leonid Brezhnev?  There’s an alternative history could have done us all a huge favour (and maybe saved us from Roman Abramovich).

Andreï Makine on Lillabullero

As is made clear in what I’ve written above, this is not the first time I have enthused about AndreÏ Makine and there are a couple of pages on this website dedicated to him and his work.  There isn’t much of Makine on the web and these pages are two of the busiest – well, relatively speaking – here on Lillabullero:

And just in case you don’t believe me, here’s the back cover of Brief loves

Back cover plaudits from 'Brief loves that live forever'

Back cover plaudits from ‘Brief loves that live forever’

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Les miserablesFollowing a twisted logic of my own devising I had managed to maintain an immunity to Les Misérables the musical over the years such that once I was comfortably seated in the cinema – a place I seldom visit – and had endured trailers for films I was never going to be interested in, I was i). surprised to find it started in 1815, a quarter century after the French Revolution I’d always thought it was set in, and ii). deafened by the brutal opening shipyard scene.  Fortunately either my ears acclimatised or it quietened down a bit and I was almost completely won over; it could have been a bit shorter – a few longeurs over some of the slower songs, a bit less prolonged suffering maybe – but, no, I concur: it’s a great movie.  My eyes moistened for I dreamed a dream and I fell in love with Anne Hathaway but it was Russel Crowe, as the baddy Javert, who got the old lower lip quivering mightily – who’d’ve thought that? – not at his finale, which was moving enough, but in the aftermath of the street fighting.  I had no problems with his singing either.

At the heart of the film is the stirring song One more day, which, as it is delivered in a stunning sequence from locations across Paris and behind the barricades, by pretty much all the major characters and chorus, on the eve of the revolutionary action, crystalises all the ideals, the big ideas of social justice and the costs of implementing them in counterpoint to the simple joys of being in love and the pains of unrequited love, the personal and the political.  There is so much going on in that song, which asks in essence what is it all for, what is worth what sacrifice?  The actual day of reckoning is devastating, shocking and incredibly moving in its epic enactment.  So I was disappointed, felt a bit let down by surviving comrade Marius (the excellent Eddie Redmayne) going along with that big high society wedding near the end.  Those who know Les Mis will know only too well that I’ve only scratched the surface;  I’ve not mentioned Hugh Jackman playing a blinder and an unsavoury running (and nevertheless) comic sideshow.  It’s a broad canvas indeed.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Unlikely pilgrimage

I suppose the first clue you get about Rachel Joyce‘s word of mouth success The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday, 2012) is that the physical object is not (the hardback at least) the usual size – it’s wider in proportion – for a novel.  It sets itself apart.  My mother always used to quote from Bambi at me, his mother’s advice to Thumper at me: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”  But what the hell, at the end of the day, although it has undoubted qualities – the delights of the countryside on the open road, his celebration of the people he meets, the compassion, the self discovery at the heart of being a (thankfully non-religious) pilgrim – I ended up resenting this book, even more so because despite the misgivings I had about specific details, I had felt compelled to read it through to the end … only to feel, by the time I got there, badly cheated by the tempting slow reveal of how and why Harold had embarked on his long walk.

OK.  I’m 64; Harold is 65 and he’s an old man from an earlier time.  He’s closer to my dad than me.  “John Lennon lay in a bed once,” he says, trying to explain his pilgrimage (though world peace is not his objective), “My son had a picture on his wall.”  No mate.  If anyone would have had that picture on his wall it would have been you, because you met your wife at a dance where you were dancing extravagantly with yourself, which would put said social occasion in the early to mid-’60s.  “Harold had done the same job as a sales rep for forty-five years.  Keeping himself apart, he worked modestly and efficiently, without seeking promotion or attention […] He made neither friends nor enemies.”  Does that sound like a successful sales rep to you, capable of staying in the job for decades?  I could go on.  In fact I will.  He walks 627 miles getting from Kingsbridge in Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed in what are variously called boat or yachting shoes (presumably deck shoes), albeit they are re-soled twice on the journey.  Can you re-sole yachting shoes? – just in case, I just checked Google and seemingly yes, but those are the top of the range models that Harold is unlikely to buy, I would suggest.  Obviously he gets blisters, pretty much from the first day: “Blisters swelled from his toes, heels and instep; some bleeding, some inflamed sacs of pus.”  Now I’ve had a septic finger within the last year and that was agony; unless they go bad – which is where the pus comes in – under blisters you get a clear fluid or blood, not pus, which really does need medical attention.  What I’m saying, really, is that I doubt the realism of his completing his journey.  There are various other circumstantial details that annoy along the way: like drilling holes for nails, a fellow pilgrim (an interesting sub-plot I’ll not enter into here) casually going off to buy spare blades for his Swiss Army Knife (try Googling that) and of Sheffield being “far behind them … a sulphuric glow on the horizon” (sulphuric a few decades ago, maybe).

Anyway, Harold and his wife have been in a sterile marriage for the last 20 years.  Something happened 20 years ago involving Queenie, a friend from work, and, it is slowly revealed, their only son David, who, it is suggested, they no longer see.  He gets a goodbye letter – she’s dying – from Queenie and writes a quick reply, goes off to post it, has a conversation in a garage shop and decides there and then to deliver it himself, thinking if she knows he’s coming it will keep her alive, and just keeps on walking.  The narrative is two-fold: the actual walk and the slow trickle of information to us, the readers, morsel by morsel, of what Queenie meant to him and what went wrong with David.  The problem is that when it finally comes the full revelation on the one hand is actually quite mundane (no affair!) and the other so shocking (and to an unsuspecting, vulnerable reader, quite likely to be distressing) that, given the revelations are coming from Harold and his wife, Maureen, we have been conned, the narrative suspense has been artificially maintained.  And as for the state of Queenie when he gets there … I just dunno why the author did that.  Unnecessary is one word.  It’s a very English novel and one is pleased for Harold and Maureen to achieve some sort of resolution, closure even, I suppose; and relieved not to have been reminded that although Berwick is an English town, its football team plays in the Scottish leagues.

Joss Ackland sets out in First and LastFIRST AND LAST

The thing is, much to its detriment, The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry reminded me of a mostly forgotten television drama of real quality from nearly a quarter of a century ago which did bring tears to my eyes.  In First and last the character played by the great Joss Ackland sets out on his own, on his retirement at age 65, to walk from Lands End to John O’Groats because he’s always wanted to do it.  As you can see from the picture, he’s properly kitted out, and this in no way hinders his incredibly moving voyage of self-discovery, the good and bad experiences he has or the exploration the repercussions this decision has on his extended family.  Made in 1989 it has a fine cast – as well as Ackland there’s Patricia Routledge and Tom Wilkinson, just for starters – and a Michael Frayn script.  It is great television – one of the best – and yet, in these times of endless repeats and cheap DVDs of the same old stuff it is nowhere to be seen or found except – in not great picture quality but nevertheless in its full 2 hours plus – on YouTube (here’s a link for the address, while it’s there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clS7Z-8dins).  You have to wonder what the BBC is playing at, why they have chosen not to make it widely available.

Scribal feb 2013 A4 redux


There was cake!  ‘Brilliant’ seems to be the word most people have used to describe the evening’s fun and entertainment for Scribal Gathering‘s third anniversary session on Tuesday.  And indeed it was.  From the opening chords of The Box Ticked‘s sound check to the triumphant final chorus of The Further Adventures of Vodka Boy‘s Drunk poet blues three hours later there was a wealth of creative talent and fellowship on display among the mirrors and antique lamps of the upstairs room at The Crown.  No open mic this month; genial majordomo Richard Frost reprised the top hat and tartan skirt (with trousers as back-up) and actually kept the more or less regular performers’ featured spots pretty much to schedule.  The Antipoet were The Antipoet just before the interval, and among others of note there was a tornado of wordery from Justin Thyme that took the breath away (and your humble blogger didn’t disgrace himself either).  Great night!

For your delectation here’s a link to an early version of  Dead poet blues:

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