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Posts Tagged ‘Alison Graham’

In the days before the internet I was puzzled by a line from Trouble in these fields, a song on one of Nanci Griffiths’ fine early albums – “And if we sell that new john, dear” – until I happened to drive past a John Deere dealership on the road into Carmarthen one day.  A minor mondegreen, then.  I learnt a lot more about tractors returning to Marina Lewycka‘s very funny comic novel A short history of tractors in Ukrainian (2005) for book group last week.

SHOTIUkIt’s an easy read but it certainly bears re-reading and I wasn’t alone in appreciating aspects of the book that were missed in that first rush (for it is a book you get a real rush from).  For me it was darker the second time around, in particular the back story of the Ukraine under Stalin, then under Hitler, the family’s escape to England.  Black humour then, a neat mix of Charles Dickens and Kurt Vonnegut no less.  As well as the witty portrayal of waspish sisterly differences, reflected in a broader view of two Englands – “See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries” – we get the agonies and absurdities of old age,  loneliness, post-Communist emigration and a whole lot more.

The old man at the centre of the dramas toys with the readers’ sympathies throughout – an old fool but also not without an eccentric occasional valid dignity – “I am not sick … I am poet and engineer” – and the conclusion of the story his marriage to the grotesque money grabbing younger country woman at the heart of the novel is beautifully worked out to one of the more unlikely happy endings I can recall.

Marina Lewycka is a writer with a lovely touch when it comes to the art of picking words.  Here the younger daughter (and narrator) is wondering how her dad got himself into this situation:

How does she persuade him?  Does she cradle his bony skull between her twin warheads and whisper sweet nothings into his hearing aid?

And I found his book about the history of tractors fascinating too, an interesting parallel history of the first half of the twentieth century.

On falling out with Alison Graham

For a long while I have felt I could trust Alison Graham‘s previews in Radio Times.  As a bonus to the wit of her writing, if she said something was rubbish I didn’t bother.  Hence I’ve never watched Luther, despite her promise of hidden delights for July 16 – This is the most unintentionally hilarious hour of the week” – which was followed the next week with:

I’ve decided that the best way to approach Luther is as if it’s a black comedy, where everyone behaves like an idiot and is devoid of even the merest smidgen of common sense.

And then there’s her recent take on The White Queen, which she warmed to, though I couldn’t be bothered.  Nevertheless for the August 11 programme I appreciated

The White Queen‘s King Richard III isn’t the foul hunch-back’d toad of Shakespeare – he’s a hunk who bears a passing resemblance to One Direction’s Harry Styles.

followed the next week with, “Give that man a horse.”  But lately I have been disturbed by her take on two recent supposed comedies.  After watching Count Arthur Strong she says she laughed

so helplessly at this episode that I had to re-apply my mascara, and I was still chortling on my way out of the office and on the train home.

I didn’t, and I wasn’t, and not just because I don’t do mascara.  I gave the show more than one chance (Alison likes it) but couldn’t actually bear to see it through to the end, so much did it creak.  And I haven’t even said anything yet about one of the worst dubbed laughter tracks I can recall, so bad I wouldn’t be surprised it was done by someone on work experience.  There is something badly amiss with BBC1’s comedy output.  Still, Alison pleaded for David Walliams’ Big School on August 16:

So please give Big School a chance. It doesn’t ooze sophistication – it’s pretty silly. But it has a great cast and I heard myself laughing out loud in places. […] A sweetly old-fashioned sitcom – in a good way.

I couldn’t last 5 minutes.  And Euan Ferguson in the Observer described it as consisting as

too occasional mini-smiles leavening a fast succession of stereotypes, interrupted by a lazy cliché or three, shot through with embarrassing pieces of slapstick.

Oh Alison.  What happened?

A few crossword clues …

… that tickled my fancy earlier this year in the Guardian and Observer.  Politics, culture, a couple of bad puns and perfect Spoonerisms.  Answers under the photo of the frogs.  Prepare to groan:

  • from the Observers’ Everyman: Vote against party? (6)
  • from setter Rufus: A time when the populace is at cross-purposes? (8)
  • from Chifonie: Major was once a skilled craftsman (12)
  • from Everyman: Which dear French PM? (8)
  • from Rufus: Fail to draw positive conclusions from Dante’s work (7)
  • from Araucaria: People like Lolita – it’s a difficult thing to do (3,7)
  • from Paul: Reproduce artist, say, for the royal issue (8,4)
  • another from Paul: Cassius claims Van Gogh’s surgical instrument possibly makes things tidy (6,4)
  • from Paul: By the sound of it Richard has overcome King Edward the Tyrant (8)
  • from Puck: Pirate can’t do this with mermaid, as some may ‘ave said (11)
  • from Pasquale: Spooner’s Sunday clothes? Not what would normally be seen in the pub (5,4)
  • from Arachne: Spooner’s to kill writer and collect £200! (4,2)
Froggy went a courting

Froggy went a courting (Yes, I know this is not how they mate but an irresistible caption, surely)

Answers

  • from the Observers’ Everyman: Vote against party? (6) Beano (Be a no)
  • from setter Rufus: A time when the populace is at cross-purposes? (8) Elections (X)
  • from Chifonie: Major was once a skilled craftsman (12) Cabinet maker – (John Major – PM)
  • from Everyman: Which dear French PM? (8) Thatcher
  • from Rufus: Fail to draw positive conclusions from Dante’s work (7) Inferno
  • from Araucaria: People like Lolita – it’s a difficult thing to do (3,7) Sex kittens
  • from Paul: Reproduce artist, say, for the royal issue (8,4) Princess Anne (Print Cezanne!)
  • another from Paul: Cassius claims Van Gogh’s surgical instrument possibly makes things tidy (6,4) Clears away
  • from Paul: By the sound of it Richard has overcome King Edward the Tyrant (8) Dictator
  • from Puck: Pirate can’t do this with mermaid, as some may ‘ave said (11) Counterfeit (Count her feet)
  • from Pasquale: Spooner’s Sunday clothes? Not what would normally be seen in the pub (5,4) Guest beer (Best gear)
  • from Arachne: Spooner’s to kill writer and collect £200! (4,2) Pass go (Gas Poe! – Monopoly)g

Sorry!

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All things consideredI’ve been dipping into a collection of G.K.Chesterton‘s essays.  It’s always fun.  Yes, he was a High Church apologist who converted to Catholicism and he suffers like Kipling from being a man of his time (the occasional dreaded ‘n’ word etc) but his appeal transcends narrow loyalties.  Contrarian, paradoxian, he delights in messing about with serious intent.  Thus:

I Have received a letter from a gentleman who is very indignant at what he considers my flippancy in disregarding or degrading Spiritualism. I thought I was defending Spiritualism; but I am rather used to being accused of mocking the thing that I set out to justify. My fate in most controversies is rather pathetic. It is an almost invariable rule that the man with whom I don’t agree thinks I am making a fool of myself, and the man with whom I do agree thinks I am making a fool of him.

That’s the start of a piece entitled Spiritualism collected in All things considered (Harrap, 1908).  In what follows the subject of spiritualism is peripheral and neatly wrapped up briefly in the final couple of paragraphs with a lovely agnostic flourish.  Meanwhile Chesterton concerns himself with the correct way to discuss serious things:

When I was a very young journalist I used to be irritated at a peculiar habit of printers, a habit which most persons of a tendency similar to mine have probably noticed also. It goes along with the fixed belief of printers that to be a Rationalist is the same thing as to be a Nationalist. I mean the printer’s tendency to turn the word “cosmic” into the word “comic.” It annoyed me at the time. But since then I have come to the conclusion that the printers were right. The democracy is always right. Whatever is cosmic is comic.

[…]  Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.

G K ChestertonAnd so it goes.  Apparently as well as being a novelist of some distinction and significance in genre fictions (the Father Brown stories, which I’ll read one of these days,  the splendidly titled The man who was Thursday and  The Napoleon of Notting Hill)  and serious non-fiction (like Orthodoxy, which I am never likely to read), GKC was an eminently dependable newspaper and magazine hack who was famously able to bash out stuff of real quality at the drop of a hat.  I’ve long suspected this side of his work was a closely guarded trade secret among working newspaper and magazine columnists and the like.  Regardless of subject it certainly makes for a fine template, this rolling out of a quirky logic with an entertaining manner.  And hey! – the first piece in All things considered is The case for the Ephemeral:

I cannot understand the people who take literature seriously; but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this book. It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think that our commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after.

Their shapelessness is debatable.  And they do still have much to say.  But all the above has been prompted by my having one of those out-of-place-words moments in the article Humanitarianism and Strength:

Somebody writes complaining of something I said about progress. I have forgotten what I said, but I am quite certain that it was (like a certain Mr. Douglas in a poem which I have also forgotten) tender and true. In any case, what I say now is this. Human history is so rich and complicated that you can make out a case for any course of improvement or retrogression. I could make out that the world has been growing more democratic, for the English franchise has certainly grown more democratic. I could also make out that the world has been growing more aristocratic, for the English Public Schools have certainly grown more aristocratic.  […]   I can prove anything in this way. […] But in all cases progress means progress only in some particular thing. Have you ever noticed that strange line of Tennyson, in which he confesses, half consciously, how very conventional progress is? –

“Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”

Even in praising change, he takes for a simile the most unchanging thing. He calls our modern change a groove. And it is a groove; perhaps there was never anything so groovy.

and there we have it.  Improbably way ahead of his time.  Not that I or any of my friends of the age have ever called anything – or felt – ‘groovy’ (even ironically) in our lives; and I’ve never understood why people find the Austin Powers films funny in the slightest.  But nevertheless, Badada-daa-daa-daa-daa.  And to give him some credit, Paul Simon does at least call his song – all well under two precious minutes of it – The 59th Street Bridge song with Feelin’ groovy in brackets.  And I’ve just learnt that Simon & Garfunkel used Dave Brubeck’s rhythm section on the recording; not exactly the perfect match to these ears, but I still feel the better for hearing it again.  (Phew.  Just about managed to stop myself going into a Bridge over troubled water rant.  Instead …)

Alison Graham rules

At her finest – she is so right.  From Give it a rest, Sue (Radio Times, 2-8 March):

My first act as world leader (it won’t be long now) will be a simple one. I will snip A Question of Sport from its moorings on BBC1 and tow it into the middle of the Atlantic. There I will scupper it before detonating the whole creaking structure and sinking it forever. Then I will declare a ten-mille exclusion zone that will be ruthlessly patrolled by helicopter gunships so no one can go near the wreckage ever again.

This week A Question of Sport celebrates its 1,000th episode. Is that right? Are we sure it isn’t 1.000.000, because it feels like it. To me. […] I remember Emlyn Hughes as a team captain and how “everyone” went bananas when Princess Anne threatened to hit Emlyn with her handbag. “Everyone” thought this was hilarious. We were a simple people back then, and easily pleased.

[…]  But make it stop. It’s a dead horse that’s been flogged and made into a lasagne. Its useful life is done.

Briefly, away with The Railwaymen

Crewe AlexandraAnd an away win for Crewe Alexandra it was too, 1-2.  Without us there would only have been 3,082 at Colchester United‘s chilly Weston Homes Community Stadium to watch an undistinguished game between two underperforming teams.  Not the noisiest of home support one has encountered – at times it felt like a ghost stadium; their drummer only started drumming for the last five minutes.  All a bit clueless, really.  From where we were sitting only Byron Moore seemed to have any guile for Crewe and a little variation in carrying the ball out of defence (as opposed to the big hoof, every time, from goal kick or open play) might have spiced things up a bit, though the pitch didn’t look to be in great condition.  Decent pub lunch though.  Thanks Sal, Mark.

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Jackie Leven & Michael Cosgrave 2The title of Ian Rankin‘s new novel – Standing in another man’s grave (Orion, 2012) – is a mondegreen, a mis-hearing of a lyric, of a Jackie Leven song.  (There’s a certain satisfaction, given both are men of Fife, to be had from knowing the origin of the word mondegreen comes from a mis-hearing of an old Scottish ballad, the Boony Earl O’Moray.)   Rankin dedicates the book to Jackie, his friend and sometime collaborator, who died just over a year ago.  I miss him; the year somehow doesn’t seem complete without a new Jackie Leven album to spend time in wonder with.  The song is the exquisite Another man’s rain from, as the man himself would say at gigs, his “fantastic” album Oh what a blow that phantom gave me from 2007.  The album’s title is taken from an anthropologist’s memoir; it still blows me away.  Here’s the Spotify link for the album.  If you don’t know it (and for sure, not enough do) there’s a brilliant version of I’ve been everywhere you would not believe and a poignant tribute to fellow maverick Kevin Coyne (Here come the urban ravens) among the other pearls and moving delights.

Another man’s rain is a stunning piece of work, a thing of great beauty, a perfect example of Jackie’s poeticism (he was ever a champion of poetry), his lyrical inventiveness and, as it happens, his genius for musical quotation (go listen).  It contains one of the loveliest quatrains anywhere in popular music:

Every man has his flower
Believe it or not
From the mighty old English rose
To the humble forget-me-not

Here’s the specific Spotify link for the song.  Performed live it developed a life of its own, especially when he could play with Michael Cosgrave.  Here are a couple of YouTube links – sorry, I really should upgrade my WordPress account so I can embed stuff like this – both from Dutch gigs:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUlWGBIUCTU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-BA5DJRixE

standinginanothermansgraveThe big news about Ian Rankin‘s novel is, of course, that after three without him he has brought back Jackie Leven-listening Scottish detective John Rebus.  And crucially not just Rebus but his long-suffering and sometimes soul sister and partner Siobhan Clarke, though this time he’s working to her since post-retirement he’s been recruited to the Cold Case Unit as a civilian.  I know, CCUs have fast become a bit of a cliché in crime fiction, but if it means we’ve got Rebus back I’m not complaining; we also get a serial killer and child abuse in the mix too, though in Standing in another man’s grave there’s a neat undercutting plot twist between the trigger that catches Rebus’s interest and the smoking gun.

I think Rankin is pleased to have the old guy back.  There’s a comfort and a touch of humour to the writing and the reading that was missing without him; not, I hasten to say, that I’m suggesting anything too comfortablewe’re still spending time out on the edge.  In a recent edition of Alan Yentob’s Imagine tv show – Ian Rankin & the case of the disappearing detective – Rankin says he still hasn’t seen any of the Rebus television series because he doesn’t want his hero contaminated by an actor’s characterisation in the way that Colin Dexter admits his writing of Morse changed in the light of John Thaw’s portrayal.  “I want him to change for other reasons.”  Nevertheless – no bad thing – it’s hard not to see and hear the masterful Ken Stott in Standing; less so Siobhan.

Naturally there’s plenty more music – mainly ’70s – most obscure being probably Michael Chapman (has to be Fully qualified survivor?) and Scottish dialect words (someone is huckling for a move, it’s hard not to imagine what a dreich weekend is, someone else’s place is a bit of a guddle).  There’s a nice running joke of Rebus referring to Siobhan’s boss James Page (“a suit and bean counter”) by way of Led Zeppelin song titles.  Rebus is smoking and mindfully drinking a little less (though one evening he “emptied a fair amount of Highland Park into himself“).  As he drives up and down the A9 he encounters old-style but “venerable” petrol pumps (fine word!).  In talking about the old days and ways of policing (of hunches rather than computer probabilities) Siobhan tells him, “You’re vinyl, we’re digital” but she’s not necessarily knocking it.

With the changes in retirement age legislation it seems Rebus can reapply for a job as a serving copper again, and he’s thinking about it.  I always drop most other things to read a new Ian Rankin at a pace and I’m hoping Rebus (or Siobhan with him as at least armchair adviser) can be  around for the next few.  (One demurral here: I’m still a bit puzzled as to why the photographs? … but I don’t want to spoilt it for anybody.)

CrosswordsAnd now given that a rebus is a puzzle

Let’s get cryptic:

… just a few more crossword clues that have tickled my fancy lately, courtesy of the Guardian and Observer (Everyman) with some tipsy toilet humour, not a little cleverness and a couple of real ‘Ouch-es’:

  • from Everyman: How Monopoly starts, as it always has (4,3,4,2)
  • and: Marksman notes owl (12)
  • the first from Paul: Distribute the report of a yobbish baker? (4,3)
  • from Shed: Being one of 12 getting hurt (6)
  • Paul again: Fugitives wary as unprepared (8)
  • from the mighty Araucaria: Copy concerned with backing Mussolini (9)
  • a couple from Paul involving real people: Savage going after wild animal, a bloomer (5,4)
  • and: Toms Cruise, Selleck or Courtenay, but ____ , I don’t want them! (2,6)
  • from Gordius: Ointment for a Frenchman round the bend? (7)
  • and Philistine: Trouble in the loo (13)
  • Arachne: Rendered incapable (9)
  • Bonxie rolls in with: Mean drunk provides watery food (9)
  • and seasonally, from Rufus: They lead the way in the present transport system (8)

Answers appear after this latest instalment of Alison Graham doing what she does best in the Radio Times – trashing the trash.  (And though as far as The hour goes Andrea and Val disagree, I still trust the woman implicitly):

  • Bomb girls ITV3 10 Nov 2012: “… you can always admire the lovely cardigans.”
  • The Hour BBC2 14 Nov 2012: “It is still hard to fathom whether there remains less to The Hour than meets the eye.”
  • Hunted BBC1 15 Nov 2012: “I don’t think Hunted is ever going to end. It will just go on and on for ever in a parallel universe where it actually makes sense. Back here in our world, people keep kicking each other while more characters who are never explained keep popping up. And everyone in the wretched thing is horrible […]  Meanwhile other people look enigmatic at railway stations, get shot in the head, and in one horrible sequence, are suffocated with a plastic bag.
  • but she’s made her mind up about The Hour (round-up Dec 1-7 2012):  “The Hour wears me out. In between yelling at news producer Bel Rowley, “Call yourself a journalist? You couldn’t uncover a duvet,” I project my own emotions on to it, just to liven things up a bit.  [… ] Creator Abi Morgan … tries … to convince us that Bel and reporter Freddie burn for one another. But there’s nothing between them. They are two fan heaters set on cold.”

Crossword clues – the answers:

  • How Monopoly starts, as it always has (4,3,4,2) From the word Go
  • Marksman notes owl (12) Sharpshooter
  • Distribute the report of a yobbish baker? (4,3) Dole out (Dough lout)
  • Being one of 12 getting hurt (6) Injury (Ouch)
  • Fugitives wary as unprepared (8) Runaways (anagram)
  • Copy concerned with backing Mussolini (9) Reproduce !!!
  • Savage going after wild animal, a bloomer (5,4) Tiger lily
  • Toms Cruise, Selleck or Courtenay, but ____ I don’t want them! (2,6) No thanks
  • Ointment for a Frenchman round the bend? (7) Unguent
  • Trouble in the loo (13) Inconvenience
  • Rendered incapable (9) Plastered
  • Mean drunk provides watery food (9) Shellfish (selfish drunkenly)
  • They lead the way in the present transport system (8) Reindeer (it’s Christmas)

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Anyone else remember when Julian Fellowes was a bit of a joke, a comedy snob?  No?

I can remember being deeply moved as a young lad by the original 1958 black and white film.  Was it Sink the Titanic?  No – hang on: that was 1960’s Sink the Bismarck!  In my defence, Kenneth More in the both of them.  I mean – oh yes, I remember – A night to remember; here’s the trailer on YouTube.  I was never going to watch James Cameron’s 1997 movie for reasons that should be obvious, like that song.  And I certainly wasn’t going to watch this latest TV version.  I’d hated Upstairs, downstairs first time around.

Alison Graham has been on the case of this “damp epic” in the Radio Times of late.  This from Sunday, March 25:

All the classes play their allotted roles in Julian Fellowes’s new blockbuster. The upper classes on the Titanic are toxic snobs, the middle classes peevish artisans and the lower classes noble riffraff who want only better lives for themselves and their children. […]  We join them all (and the bigness of the boat is signified by people looking up and going all wide-eyed) as they embark […] It’s Drownton Abbey.  […] When doom comes out of the watery darkness, it’s a strange moment, made odder by the fact that the iceberg looks like a big peak of icing sugar.

This woman is to be trusted.  The next week she warns:

The Titanic hasn’t even set sail and the dramatically ironic hints about What is to Come are already dropping like dead bats …

And on the same day, maybe a bit unfair about Silent witness – its silences and pace can haunt – but you can’t but admire and appreciate the turn of phrase, nonetheless:

Somehow the word “convoluted” just doesn’t quite work when applied to the Byzantine pathways of a Silent witness plot, so we are all over the place as perpetually tormented Leo has much to be tormented about when he ponders an old case. And Nikki floats through the action looking thoughtful in a series of pretty blouses.

We were in South Wales for a wedding – congratulations Ali & Steve – at the weekend.  The Titanic illustration I’ve used above is from the mural decorating the Penllywn Millennium Centre in Blackwood, Caerphilly (or for older readers, Monmouthshire).  It celebrates the town’s history and the Centre’s current uses, and was, it says, “Painted by the people of Penllywn”.  Good for them.  It would have been a very dull wall without the official graffiti.  The Romans, Captain Morgan (a privateer, not a pirate – oh yeah – but one-time resident), the wartime Yanks, the miners (though it was never a mining town the Miners Institute was a cultural hub) and the music (among others, it’s where the Manic Street Preachers hail from – love the concept, but I regret to say I’m unmoved by their works).  And there’s the Titanic connection.

Shame the mural doesn’t make anything of – or at least I couldn’t see it – the area being a centre of Chartist organisation and agitation in the 1830s.  But what I particularly like about this mural is its hopefulness, that there are lives to be lived hence, nicely encapsulated in the ‘Volume 1’ on the book’s spine.

The Titanic connection is fascinating.  Artie Moore lived in Gelligroes, just outside of town.  A keen young inventor and early radio enthusiast, he was the first in the UK  to know anything was amiss on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.  He picked up a faint Morse code distress signal from the stricken ship on his crude home-made apparatus up in the loft at the Old Mill in the early hours of April 15, 1912.  He told his family and people in the town and went to the police but no-one believed him.  At the time the ship was well beyond what was thought to be the maximum wireless range.  It was only two days later that the locals received confirmation through the national press that it was true.  As a direct result of this exploit Moore went on to have a successful career with the Marconi company.

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Quite why this cartoon strikes me as the funniest I’ve seen in a long while, I’m not sure.  Displacement?  Modern anxieties, feelings of inadequacy expressed in a historical situation, another time, another place, a movie cliché at that?  Allied, of course, to the drawn body language.

As the line at the bottom betrays, it’s lifted from the bi-monthly New Humanist magazine, November/December cover date. The one with Al Murray on the cover – “Of course there is a god, and he’s British.  The Bible’s in English isn’t it?“- if you can find it on magazine racks anywhere.  If I’ve infringed copyright it’s because I’m trying to spread the word (to the select few who land and linger on Lillabullero, so no great invasion methinks) and Chris Collins deserves the exposure.

Great magazine, published by the Rationalist Association,  with a strapline of ‘Ideas for godless people,’ though I wouldn’t say godlessness necessarily precludes finding something of interest (like the affectionate interview with ex-Communard turned vicar Richard Coles).  £3.95 if, as I say, you can find it anywhere, though there is plenty – including the  cartoon – to sample on its website here.  Well designed, nicely illustrated and full of articles, journalism, think pieces, interviews, reviews, humour, great cartoons (well up to Private eye standard) and a regular Lawrie Taylor tailpiece.

And here’s a joke I came across in the Guardian’s Football Blog last Friday, where it was credited to “the sparkling” Simon Hoggart: “Did you hear Greece has banned exports of hummus and taramasalata? They’re in a double-dip recession.

Unexpected quote from Alison Graham in the Radio Times on Nirvana last week: “a quick blast of Smells like Teen Spirit is enough to clean anyone’s spiritual and emotional pipes“.  Well, yes.  And more prime words from her leading up to the Downton Abbey 2nd Season Finale:

I must admit I have always had an odd relationship with Downton, more Stockholm Syndrome than actual love.  I watch, see only its flaws, yet I am captivated and chained to the door handle.  Not Patty Hearst captivated; if Robert, earl of Grantham told me to rob a bank while wearing a beret, I wouldn’t.  But it always reels me in, despite my sturdy defences (cynicism, ruthlessness, a refusal to admit to weakness).”
Which is probably why I recoil in horror at the very idea of actually watching it; that and a reversion to class war instincts.  But,  I have to remind myself, the show certainly brings out the best in AG.

More Crossword wit
, courtesy of the Guardian’s compilers.  First some satisfying anagrams, starting with a couple of classics:
  • from Rufus: Stomach is churning – but he enjoys it! (9) 
  • from Tramp: Philosopher unconventional to realist (9)
  • from Gordius: The gaps it managed to fill (9)
  • from the mighty Araucaria: He was beat and needed a cure all right (7)
  • from relative new boy Bonxie: City slam United – that’s inexplicable! (8)

And now some more with musical subjects:

  • a couple from Rufus: Put on heavy music symbolic of Ireland (8) 
  • Four on the fiddle (6,7)
  • genius from another newie, Tramp: Singer has straight daughter – alternatively the opposite (7)
  • and from Gordius: Egg breaks listener rising to music (6)
Answers further down the page, under this photo of Robert Koenig‘s Tripod man, carved from the wood of a single oak tree, part of an interesting exhibition curated by The Public Arts Trust to be found at the side of John Lewis (the Collections side) in the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre mall (oh, all right: the centre:MK), which is there until March 2012.
Crossword answers:
Anagrams: Masochist / Aristotle / Spaghetti / Kerouac (a cure OK) / Mystical (6-1 was the score, I seem to recall)
Musical: Shamrock (groan) / String quartet (groan) / Orbison (or-bi-son!!) / Reggae (ear-egg) (not your normal crossword word)

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All Saints, Wing

Is there another word for church spotting? I haven’t found one. I know those following the once noble pursuit of trainspotting became gricers at some stage (though I’m not sure that ever really worked – Gricing? What’s that? Oh, trainspotting), while birdspotters are fairly well-known as twitchers. So church spotting it is – to a backing track of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing; I just Googled the title to check if it needed an apostrophe, only to discover it was originally an Iggy Pop song, co-written by David Bowie – I did not know that; it’s been a learning week or so.

Anyway, a friend is working his way through the high scorers in Simon JenkinsEngland’s thousand best churches (revised, 2002) and was good enough to ask me along on the North Bucks run. As a humanist, nay atheist (or should that be atheist, nay humanist) I see no contradiction in being interested in churches. As an accumulation of social, historical, cultural, artistic and architectural endeavour they can’t really be beat. As documents in stone and glass, in the best (and indeed most of the rest) there is a sense of reverence – stillness, quiet, but let us not forget the bells, the organ – that cannot be denied for all that “I know that my redeemer liveth” stuff (I note you redeem when buying stuff in iTunes these days and I think that’s what you used to do with full books of Green Shield stamps). A sense of reverence, as I say, but also the absurd, like those often hideous family monuments to the local rich power in the land. But there is something there, in the proportions if they’re right, their geometry, you feel the – for want of a better word, and without bestowing any Platonic qualities on it – spirit of the place, of time passed, a power and a peace. Not the most original set of thoughts, I’ll admit, but, well, churches are great at being … churches.

And, of course, in England the local church is there on a cultural par with the notion of the village green. In the book group book I’m reading at the moment (of which more in another post) – Evelyn Waugh’s A handful of dust – there’s a delicious bit where the ex-colonial vicar, back in a Berkshire parish in his dotage, continues to use unedited the sermons that served him well enough in the Tropics, at Christmas:

“How difficult it is for us,” he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under their woolen gloves, “to realise that this is indeed Christmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of an alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stares of the subjugated, though no doubt grateful, heathen. Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethlehem […] we have for companions the ravening tiger and the exotic camel …

And the first sketch that springs to my mind from Beyond the fringe is always Alan Bennett at the pulpit sermonising from the text, “But my brother Esau is an hairy man.”

What made a particular impact on me last Thursday was seeing such a variety of styles of church building in the one afternoon. To the extent that churches are always works in progress it’s a simplification to say it, but as it happens we visited three churches in chronological order. First off was Anglo-Saxon All Saints, Wing – that’s the photo at the head of this post, that dark semi-circle to the left of the group of gravestones is the sadly locked entrance to crypt – I feel ‘holiest’ in crypts. At Norman St Michael’s, Stewkley, we presumed to go through an open door and climbed the narrow stairs to the bell ringer’s floor in the tower, and were lucky enough to be entertainingly talked through the elements of campanology – thanks. The remote, splendid and crumbling All Saints, Hillesden – “the cathedral in the meadows” – was built in, I can now safely say with confidence, the Gothic Perpendicular style. I say ‘with confidence’ because I have benefited from reading the Ladybird Book (ah, youth!) illustrated above, which Chris reckons is the best introduction to the subject going, and having learnt a lot in a very short time, I see no reason not to concur. He’s also got me re-evaluating the life and works of Dire Straits and more particularly Mark Knopfler, but that’s another story, save to revel in just how great a twist on the theme his Romeo and Juliet is (“Hey, la, my boyfriend’s back“) and to fall back in wonder at how you can write a Song for Sonny Liston and make it work; it’s the restraint in the voice and the story telling that catches the emotions.

Finally, further proof that in telly-land Alison Graham rules! This is precisely why I will not watch Julian Fellowe’s Downton Abbey. From Radio Times, last Saturday’s episode:

is so packed with misery and emotionally crunching scenes that you either (a) run weeping into your living room curtains or (b) stare dry-eyed and open-mouthed as you wonder at the gall of a man who is so mercilessly manipulative.

Cynical, moi?

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Filling the gap in my Banks log, I’ve just caught up with Peter Robinson‘s Not safe after dark; and other works (2004).  Written between 1989 and 2004, it includes three Inspector Alan Banks stories and a novella – Going back – that reworks material used in The summer that never was, with Banks spending some time back in Peterborough with his parents, revisiting his teenage years (mulling over a box of old singles – the title has to refer to the Dusty Springfield version) and meeting up with an old flame.  The novella is nicely done, meditative and moral without being overbearing, with a bit of crime fighting and love action on the side.  Lots of music, of course, too much to detail here, as they swap old shared likes (Blind Faith!) and catch up with later stuff, not to mention Val Doonican (which I won’t).  In his car stereo Banks has  got Thelonius Monk, the Grateful Dead (but which album? – if we’re going to these lengths it matters) and Cecilia Bartoli singing Gluck.  And good on him (Banks/Robinson!) for mentioning with affection Here we go round the mulberry bush, an underrated British  film with a sixth former as hero from 1967 that still warms the cockles of expectation.

The short stories are a mixed bunch; in the ones involving Banks, the single suspicious deaths in each are relatively straightforward and solved with the minimum of other plot distractions.  Summer rain revisits the ’60s again, and starts off as lightly as any from the Robinson/Banks oeuvre that I can recall – man walks into a police station, says he’s been murdered in a previous life – but ends sadly.  For all its shortness, we still get Michael Nyman’s music from The Piano, Mussorgsky’s Great gate of Kiev and Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto.  Eh?  Anna said is neatly done, the murder method ingeniously painful psychologically to the survivor at liberty of a now reduced love triangle; haunting.  Only musical mention: Furtwanger conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, specifically a 1951 live recording from Bayreuth, “mono but magnificent”.  What?  I’ll have to read some Morse to see if this is satire or not, I guess.  The final Banks story, The good partner, another devious murderous love tangle, unfortunately turns on a technological twist that I frankly doubt: do any cameras have anti-red-eye flash as the only option?  But he does have Miles Davis’s  Birth of the cool in the car.

Interestingly, there is no music in the 15 short stories that don’t feature our music loving tec.  I liked the fairly unpleasant title story least of all, one of the 5 in which the narrator or central character ends up becoming a murderer; in another a man sets out to achieve this but is preempted, murdered himself.  In three other stories, three of the better ones, the investigator is moved to ‘let things lie’ and the crime goes unpunished.  A variety of locations and periods figure.  I found the contemporary North American ones the least convincing, never transcending their crime short story genre status – and coincidences abound – but I’m glad to have read, in particular, three stories with not so ancient historical settings.   Murder in Utopia is set in a progressive Victorian industrial community, while, though set in famililiar Banks Yorkshire territory, Thomas Hardy makes an appearance in The two ladies of Rose Cottage.  Best of the bunch is In Flanders Fields, in which two tragic tales from the First World War reach a dreadful denouement in the Second. Haunting in a nother way.

And while we’re here, DCI Banks has just returned to tv screens, despite an earlier overwrought and pretty bad pilot, and – what do you know? – is showing a marked improvement.  So rather than await the next episode with some apprehension (if at all) I can now safely say I’m looking forward to the next couple of two-parters.  In the Playing with fire adaptation Stephen Tompkinson as Banks pulls it off; not sure what has changed, but the whole thing rings truer (even if there is not a hint of the music).

While we’re on the subject of TV crime series, I mention The body farm, not for anything special about it as a show – it’s all right, though Keith Allen as the good bad cop (or should that be bad good cop) is always worth watching – but to high-five Radio Times tv critic Alison Graham yet again for just being on our sideThe body farm starts, before the opening title sequence, with deep and meaningless philosophical gibberish.  Over to Alison, for tonight’s (Sept 27) episode:

“In pursuit of the truth, we must protect the unknown, there must be a pristine separation of fact from fiction.”  Er, yes, all right Dr Eve Lockhart, if you say so.  And, by the way, who are you talking to when you hurl out these nuggets of wisdom, unseen, over the opening scenes of every lurid episode?  The neighbour putting out her washing?  A pet monkey?

Elsewhere in the same issue, Alison admits, under the heading Words of wisdom:

[…] I have become a teeny bit obsessed with the preposterous nuggets-of-nothing that Dr Eve Lockhart (Tara Fitzgerald) intones over the opening minutes.  [She gives three examples].  To me these sound like someone has dropped a box of words, accidentally hoovered them up, then emptied them out on to the carpet.  As Stephen Fry points out elsewhere in this issue, the English language is a beautiful thing, people.  Stop mucking about with it.

Indeed.  You would have thought all Tara F, made to say the words, had to do was say, WTF? and that should have been an end to it.

 

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