Friday, 26 December 2008

Six Shooter

Winner of the Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 2006, Martin McDonough's directorial debut is about as black as black comedy gets. After the death of his wife a man (Brendan Gleeson) shares a train journey with a young sociopath determined to provoke others on the train, including a couple who have lost their baby. It's difficult to say too much without giving away the 'plot' of this quirky film but it is amazing that McDonough is able to find humour in cot-death, suicide and exploding livestock.

And it is funny.

To then wrap things up with an oddly touching ending is quite an achievement.


Monday, 22 December 2008

where's the driver?

Play Box
from Redstone Press

Before the Xbox, before X Factor, there was a thing called human interaction. Now don't worry, I'm not going to go off on a rant about popular culture, the death of the family or the golden age before the arrival of television; I love TV and computer games and the internet. Maybe it's having a baby and watching him play contentedly for hours with a plastic cup whilst studiously ignoring the expensive stroller/entertainment system right next to him but we do sometimes seem to miss out on the spirit of play. This year, whilst everyone is worrying about the credit crunch and perhaps not rushing out to buy the latest console or gadget, Redstone Press may well have come up with the perfect antidote to a blue Christmas.

The Play Box contains a cornucopia of visual and mental delights. Flick books, word games, nonsense verse and stories, puzzles, trick images and a collection of images from 1928 for a Russian children's book never published before. We went through the box the other day and it was charming and delightful. There are simple things, like sticking your fingers through a postcard to become a bathing belles' legs (or in a saucier version using the pads of your fingers to be the buttocks of another lady), cards that reveal something hidden when held to the light and optical illusions that'll mess with your mind. One of the Russian children's illustrations completely bamboozled my mother-in-law, leading to calls of 'where's the driver?' throughout the afternoon (you'll have to look for him yourself). And the book of Wordplay isn't just fun but educational too. For example:

We don't tend to use our brains like this anymore so it makes for a stimulating experience. I realise it's a bit late now, but if the pinch is preventing you from purchasing the latest gizmo and you can't bear another game of Monopoly then the Play Box might be just what you're after.

Redstone Press can be found here.


Saturday, 20 December 2008

2008: Review of my Year

I'd like to start off by mentioning that this year the standard of books I have read and music I have listened to has been incredibly high. I have always been a reader of reviews in order to find new authors, or books worth reading, as well as speaking to booksellers and even the odd friend, but the risk has always been falling prey to the puff piece (a particular hazard when finding music). If reviewing is your job, a daily task, there's always the chance that through the repetition of themes and ideas, through all the mediocrity, something which is merely different or puts its head above the parapet can be elevated to the status of next big thing, album of the year, or even that dreaded word: MASTERPIECE!

What has changed all of that for me has been blogging. Through reading a wide variety of views, written in a way that tends to reveal far more of the personality, tastes and prejudices of the author and then cross referencing those recommendations, I have found my strike rate getting better and better. Add to that the increase (I hope) in my own critical faculties since I began writing my own reviews and we have the reasons why 2008 has been such an enjoyable year for me. Forget the Booker, and other prize lists, and even be wary of the paid experts. For a really good idea about what's worth reading, listening to or watching listen to the enthusiasts who bother to write their thoughts up in their spare time. Not all of them of course, some of them are rubbish.


Choosing a book of the year is well nigh impossible for me this year. There are so many books I have enjoyed, been challenged by and simply in awe of. What I've decided to do is mention three books written by authors who are making themselves essential writers. The books have stayed with me through the year and share a theme; that best summarised by the famous line by William Faulkner: 'The past is never dead. It isn't even past.'

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

A book I read right at the beginning of the year and which I cannot quite shake from my head. It failed to win the Booker judges over last year but I was bowled over by its ambition. It's a big novel filled with ideas, the very text itself fractured and interrupted by the presence of the past in the form of John Scogin, court jester to Edward IV. Many characters find themselves losing control over their own actions as this malevolent spirit reaches out, a genuinely unsettling experience for the reader with some clever typography. The plot is wide ranging but as one character observes about history,'It's a fascinating business. Kind of like solving a crime. Like unravelling a mystery story. All the clues are in the text and your job is simply to sniff them out'. International rail links may not have put Ashford on the map but this grand novel by one of the this country's most exciting writers certainly deserves to.

Glister by John Burnside

A writer who deserves to be read by many, many more, Burnside's work as a poet and his recent memoir A Lie About My Father have helped to develop his fiction into something very distinctive. Glister combines the sinister menace of a fairytale with the very modern horrors of violence and murder. His vision of Innertown, a place poisoned by industry, strikes at the very heart of our fears for our environment. Haunted by a history of child murders, it is a society broken, divided and scared, through which he also latches onto our fears for and of children in a genuinely original way. His skills as a poet populate almost every page with a phrase or image that sticks in your mind and it all adds up to being a authentically frightening experience.

The Impostor by Damon Galgut

Sneaking in just before the end of the year Galgut's latest novel is a powerful work filled with symbolism and heavy with meaning. Looking to get his life going again Adam Napier retreats to his brothers rural house in the karoo to write poetry. A chance encounter with an old schoolfriend brings his past rushing back, temptation within his grasp and as his moral compass wavers he finds himself embroiled in the machinations of the new South Africa. Filled with striking imagery and evocative prose it is a short novel which punches well above its weight and marks Galgut out as a writer of extreme promise for the future.

Honourable mentions: The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, Blackmoor by Edward Hogan, The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page by G B Edwards,The Cottagers by M N Klimasewiski.

Not-book-of-the-year: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I know I'm in the minority here but really, you deserve better, people.


It's been a fanatastic year for music I think. Paul Weller and Nick Cave showed some of the young pretenders how it's really done. Portishead and Tricky came back as strong as ever and Elbow finally earned some recognition after 18 years of making great music together. But the best music was being made on the other side of the pond I'm afraid, whether it was the invention of young acts like MGMT and Vampire Weekend or the profusion of beautiful male harmonies and alt. folk Americana. But amongst all the fantastic music this year one album stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Dear Science, by TV On The Radio

Inventive, angry, free and funky; Brooklyn's art-rockers delivered on their earlier promise with an album of sparkling gems and no filler. I'm not a big fan of star ratings but this is what 5-stars was meant for. In fact this album deserves a Michelin star it's so rich and tasty. Music which is exciting in its combinations of musical influences, its variety on the album itself and its approaches vocally is enough to raise it above its peers, but when it actually has something to say too, then you really have something worth listening to. Sometimes an album comes along which gives all the other bands out there a real kick up the arse, and should embarrass some groups into retirement. The last one like that was OK Computer and it seems fitting that the band who paid tribute to that release with their first demo OK Calculator should have risen to take that crown.

Close, but no cigar: For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver, Sun Giant EP by Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend, I could name many, many more...

Not album of the year: Anywhere I Lay My Head by Scarlett Johansson. Don't give up the day job. Even Dave Sitek couldn't save this one.


I have seen far too few films this year for one reason or another so I don't feel I can really talk about my film of the year (we've joined LOVEFiLM now so perhaps next year will be better) but I enjoyed laughing away at Son Of Rambow, Knocked Up and In Bruges and was certainly electrified by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. I thought There Will Be Blood might sneak in and steal the crown but if I had to pick one film it would be David Fincher's superb Zodiac. The recreation of the period is spot on, the performances from Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo are superb and the personal investment from Fincher, who was growing up in San Francisco at the time the killings occurred, makes all the difference. His confidence to take time to tell the story may not be to all tastes but what's two and half hours between friends?


2008 has been the year of the box-set for many folks. Amazon's DVD sales chart has become the subject of newspaper articles. For me, HBO continued to dominate my viewing with all five series of The Wire. Most TV programmes struggle to tell even one side of the story competently. The Wire puts them to shame by providing the most rounded portrait of a city I have ever seen. Crediting its audience with some intelligence, it never patronised; dealing with big issues and big storylines with the confidence of those who know all sides of the story. No, it's not The Sopranos, but what is?

Theatre and Art

If I haven't watched many films this year I certainly haven't seen nearly enough Theatre or Art. Having a baby does nothing for your social life. On the plus side I know all the words to all the songs on Balamory, In The Night Garden and Tikkabilla. I'm hoping next year will be different. And I hope you'll enjoy some of it with me...

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Wednesday, 17 December 2008

High Places - High Places

High Places - Golden

A chance find from looking at high scoring albums on Metacritic, High Places are Rob Barber and vocalist Mary Pearson, an electronica duo from Brooklyn with plenty of buzz around them. Their name apparently comes from their love of...well, high places, like tall buildings and mountains, places from which you gain a wider perspective but given the dreamy, reverbed vocals and eclectic instrumentation on both this and their previously released singles collection, 03/07-09/07 , it could just as easily be a drug reference. When the pair met Barber was working in visual art and Pearson was completing a degree in bassoon performance. Yes, you did read that correctly. The range of sounds in their work is staggering, sometimes using folk instruments, layered vocals, sampled guitars and even household objects. The melding of traditional and modern and the general far-out nature of the lyrics, means that pop-folk-tronica is probably a better description of what they do, but just typing the phrase makes me shudder slightly. Their Myspace profile lists their influences as: Potassium, Vitamin C, B1, B6, B12, Fiber, Iron and Calcium, which doesn't really help either, does it?

03/07-09/07 is a collection of songs bursting with creative energy. The beats are syncopated and skittering all over the place, the eclectic instrumentation, sometimes cacophonous, has an almost tropical flavour to it and the vocals are reverbed and filtered through the gauze of cosmic spirituality. Sometimes it works, as on the charming 'Banana Slugs/Cosmonaut' which begins looking down at the titular invertebrates before raising itself to the heavens in philosophical enquiry - 'And we're all full of questions/And we would like to know just exactly where we came from/And exactly where we'll go/Well I know my limitations/And I know that I don't know/But still I know the constellations and I know the falling snow' or the joyous 'Jump In', commissioned for a school music programme, with its optimistic call to 'Get a move on/Jump in'. At other times it all becomes a bit twee ('I'm a pinprick on a pinprick on a pinprick of Time and Space/It takes a lot of guts to be a little baby in this place') but there's something about the warmth of Pearson's vocals which mean she just about gets away with it.

A collection of songs by its disparate nature is never going to hold together properly so it is interesting to hear the development of their sound on the self-titled debut album. Much of it remains the same: the varied instruments and found sounds, the always interesting fragmented beats and the lyrics filled with references to nature and the cosmos. But things have been tightened up a little, producing a slightly more conventional dance sound, which isn't to say that things are predictable, it's as loopy as before, but there's a polish to the proceedings which makes everything far more cohesive.

'The Storm' which opens the album leads to the growth of a tree, one of the recurring images from Pearson's lyrics. Her optimism is shown clearly when she climbs it, staining her clothes but declares proudly 'it was worth it'. The tropical flavours continue on 'Tree With The Lights In It' and 'Vision's The First' where a fairground organ closes things with a sinister twist. 'Gold Coin' is inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, its lyrics coming close to the kind of hippy mumbo-jumbo ('Part of you is man/Part of you is god-self/The rest is just stumbling in the mist') which could put some people off, if the beats behind it weren't so fragmented. The truly sun filled 'Golden' is a highlight even if its sampled steel drums develop into something which sounds like a malfunctioning fruit machine. The last few tracks are very strong leading up to an excellent finish with 'From Stardust To Sentience' which reminded me of Lamb (remember them?). There aren't many singers who can tell you that you're 'billion year old carbon' and make it sound romantic. It would be too strong to talk about filler on an album which clocks in at just 30 minutes but the two instrumental tracks don't add an awful lot and miss the sweet vocals of Pearson.

Those who make music in their bedrooms should note the obvious glee with which High Places scour the rest of their apartment looking for new objects with which to make music. Something of that childish enthusiasm comes through even the polish of this album but it must be fascinating to watch them live. I'm not expecting to see them standing there with plastic bags and mixing bowls but there's precious little charm in most electronic music and High Places have it in glorious abundance.


Monday, 15 December 2008

There Will Be Blood

Placed in many critic's 'Top Ten' lists this year, Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' is unsurprisingly mammoth viewing (for those who have watched any of his other films). Tackling not only America's drink of choice, oil, but its sustenance too in religion, it is a big bold film with a big performance at its centre. Anderson's work certainly has the ability to divide people. I know equal numbers of people who would describe 'Magnolia' as either bona fide genius or self-indulgent tosh, and even those who loved 'Boogie Nights' couldn't fail to notice that it was very, very long (pun intended) with an ending that spiralled away. What you can't deny is that he has vision and confidence, two qualities which are essential when attempting to make the kind of epic masterpiece Anderson clearly wants this to be

The opening section of the film contains no speech, we simply watch as Daniel Plainview toils at the bottom of a shaft prospecting for silver. We know that this is a determined man when he breaks his leg in a fall and literally drags himself and a rock sample into town to be tested. This determination will develop into ruthlessness as he builds himself into an oil man. When an accident kills one of his workmen he takes on the responsibility of his orphaned child, using him to develop the persona of family man when delivering his spiel to those whose land he wants to buy. Daniel Day-Lewis is never less than watchable, often compelling, and his performance completely dominates the film. He chews up the script, the voice (his starting point when developing the character) a rough drawl from another era, his eyes permanently squinting into the harsh sunlight and his skin always looks filthy; the dirt and oil so deep in his pores that in one section of the film, when he bathes in the sea, he looks almost absurdly naked.

He is approached by Paul Sunday with information about a possible place to drill for oil. Under the guise of a quail hunt he and his boy, HW, find oil seeping to the surface and he offers to buy the Sunday ranch. It is Paul's brother, Eli, who steps into the negotiation to ensure that his father isn't ripped off and it is he, as a preacher and faith healer, who allows Anderson to develop his other major theme. These two men become locked in a battle of wills, each proclaiming to have the interests of the community at heart, each feeling that he is able to see to the centre of the other and the resounding hollow within. Paul Dano as Eli has a tough task opposite Day-Lewis. I understand that he was originally hired to play only the small role of Paul. Replacing the original actor in the role of Eli gave him only a few days to prepare and faced with the presence of Day-Lewis it frequently dissolves into a shouting match. Advice to all young actors: You cannot beat Daniel Day-Lewis in a shouting match.

The really interesting relationship is between Plainview and HW. The burden of responsibility is something which Plainview finds he isn't up to, especially when that responsibility becomes a burden. Unfortunately it is a thread which isn't given the time it deserves and the cursory summation of that storyline in the coda at the end of the film isn't enough to do it justice. In fact the final section of the film is the major problem with it. Not only does it add little to the story, apart from a neater ending, but it actually risks destroying everything that has come before it. Anderson's films and Day-Lewis' performances are a bit like an expanding soap bubble. The bigger it gets the more amazing it is, you almost can't believe it's so big, and then there comes a point where you can't sustain it any more, the surface tension collapses and it all falls apart. By returning to the story twenty odd years further on we see Plainview installed in the house he had always wished for, having earned enough money to be apart from others whom he hates, vast empty halls, two unused bowling lanes, and at its centre the dejected and alcoholic oil man. This is the point at which the performance becomes too much (and I'm a man who can suspend his disbelief with the best of them), the final exchanges pitched so high they risk just being funny, especially with Dano's attempts to keep up.

Anderson decided not to call the film 'Oil!', after the Upton Sinclair novel it's based on, because there was 'not enough of the book' in it. Unfortunately there isn't enough anything in it to support some of the loftier claims made for this film. A ruthless oilman doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, and the chink in his armour that could have made for a more interesting story isn't given enough time on screen. There is lots to admire in this film, Jonny Greenwood's score for example is original, slightly at odds with the period, but absolutely in tune with the atmosphere, and the bleached out cinematography makes a fine feature of the arid landscape. I did actually like it, but don't expect it to tell you anything. Like its central character there is a hollowness at its centre, and if he doesn't learn anything from his journey then what do we?


Monday, 8 December 2008

Department Of Eagles - In Ear Park

Department Of Eagles - In Ear Park

Thanks again to James Dalrymple who brought Department Of Eagles to my attention. Not so much a side project as a sister act to Daniel Rossen's other band, Grizzly Bear, DOE tread a similar path of electronica influenced folk and with the inclusion on this album of Chris Taylor and Christopher Bear from Grizzly Bear the lines dividing the two projects become even more blurred. In Ear Park is much closer to a record made up of songs rather than the more experimental sounds on Yellow House, although don't let that fool you into thinking that this is easy listening. My poor attempt at a track by track guide will give you an idea of the varied sounds and textures. It begins with the title track, a song inspired by the death of Rossen's father, plucked guitars quickly develop in texture and there is a pastoral quality to the track as the vocals come in, 'All of us walk a long steady line/And now that you're gone/I have nothing but time/To walk with your bags/Down to the docks/And sit in the grass/Right in your spot/In Ear Park'. The introduction of a piano and harmonised backing vocals soon build it into something larger, almost filmic. It is a beautiful opening. 'No One Does It Like You' begins with Phil Spector like handclaps and percussion before what I can only describe as do-wop backing vocals, although I know that isn't really accurate. Electronically layered vocals are employed on 'Phantom Other' which builds to quite a crescendo, I didn't know you could do heavy banjo! A grand sounding piano is thumped throughout 'Teenagers' which with it's distorted vocals and slightly off kilter melody is one of the album's stand out tracks.

'Around The Bay' manages to sound like something from the soundtrack of a Hitchcock movie, but with Spanish infused handclaps and guitar. 'Herring Bone' has a quality remeniscent of Lennon and McCartney, dealing again with themes of loss. 'Classical Records' has the feeling of a nightmare about it and some extraordinary percussion and things don't get any easier with the bombastic 'Waves Of Rye'' and instrumental 'Therapy Car Noise'. Melody returns with the sweetly sung 'Floating On The Lehigh' which in tune with its content, meanders slightly like the course of a river. Rossens's father retuns on the banjo chorused 'Balmy Night', 'My father told me/Never to run/There's things coming after me/I'm all ready gone/Out through the door/Through my backyard', and so it finishes.

As I said earlier there is lots of variety in the instrumentation, familiar to anyone who has already heard Grizzly Bear, and whilst it holds together on the whole the second half of the record isn't quite as cohesive as the first four or five tracks. Lyrically it's a bit of a mixed bag too, a little opaque on the whole. Given the depth of its musicality however, each successive listen reveals something you didn't hear last time and for those already entranced by the harmonies of Fleet Foxes and the layered folk of Bon Iver this album would make a cosy bedfellow this winter.


Sunday, 7 December 2008

In Bruges

Martin McDonough is another writer I am aware of from the theatre. He writes the kind of dialogue that other writers dream of and most actors would kill to get their hands on. I saw a certain David Tennant in the National Theatre's production of The Pillowman a few years ago and was just amazed that this sparky, inventive play all about storytelling had been rejected previously by both the RSC and Royal Court. After winning an Oscar with his short film debut 'Six Shooter' it was always going to be interesting to see what he created with his first feature. Happily it is an off-beat comedy thriller set in one of Europe's best preserved medieval cities. Obviously.

When McDonough took a trip to Bruges he walked its cobbled streets and marvelled at the gothic architecture, the calm waterways populated by swans and found himself simultaneously bored stiff by it all. From that point he split his experience into two characters: Ken (the always brilliant Brendan Gleeson) who falls for Bruges, and Ray (the surprisingly good Colin Farrell) who thinks it's a 'shithole', both of them hitmen hiding out after a bungled shooting. As the two of them play at being tourists McDonough gives full rein to his skills, the profanity as free-flowing as the 'gay beer' and the two very different men sparking off each other. There's a chance at romance for Ray but a phone call from their boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes trying his best to do a Ben Kingsley) changes everything and when the man himself turns up in Bruges the cobbled streets play host to a very modern thriller.

There are drugs, prostitutes and a rascist American dwarf actor to help the quirky quotient but it's the dialogue which really makes the film. We are allowed to observe the humanity and fragility of men for whom killing is a job, and also of course the ideas of honour and proper conduct which govern their work and relationships. McDonough also makes a fine feature of the city itself, the DVD extras even allow you to take a boat trip on its canals. You can also see a montage of the film's swearing as well as the usual gag-reel and deleted scenes.But the main feature certainly made me giggle like I haven't for a while.


Saturday, 6 December 2008

pulling up the weeds

The Impostor
by Damon Galgut

I went to Cape Town a few years ago to film a commercial and came face to face with the 'new South Africa' almost immediately. I walked from my hotel towards the marina area where restaurants and shops jostled for space amongst the bobbing masts of yachts. On my way there I saw figures hunched beneath shipping containers and gathered around small drum fires. The next morning I saw these same figures by the roadside, waiting patiently for vans and trucks to stop and pick them up. They were men who had come in from rural areas looking for labouring work and each day from dawn they would wait there and hope to be picked up. All around Cape Town you could see the cranes which were building the new apartment blocks and offices which were the only prospect of employment for these men. In Damon Galgut's powerful new novel the juxtaposition of old and new is made all too clear, but also the meeting of Past with Present (and Future), Nature with Man and, within it's uniquely South African context, black with white. As the capital letters indicate it is a novel filled with metaphor and the kind of symbolic writing more commonly found in the short story. Although only 250 (small) pages long it crams so much in I found it one of the most satisfying reads of the year.

Picking up on my own experience of the construction of South Africa's future we meet two brothers Adam and Gavin Napier. Adam, usually the stable, dependable one has seen a change in his fortunes, replaced at work by a younger black colleague and drifting aimlessly whilst his brother has become a successful property developer for whom only the cheapest fittings will do. Adam is offered the opportunity to stay in his brother's place in the country, an almost derelict house with a tin roof, in order to pursue a dream from his youth; to write poetry. Choked by tough old weeds (which he is ordered to remove by the local Mayor) this is far from a country retreat, until recently it was literally the end of the road, and it isn't long before the isolation begins to take its toll.

'On that first day, when he'd arrived, he'd felt time flowing in through the front door behind him. He'd brought time back into the house. But now he could feel a different time - old time, dead time - trapped inside, unable to pass back out, into the current. It had become shaped to the rooms, looping back on itself, piling up in compacted layers so dense and heavy that they were almost substantial. It didn't seem implausible that people or actions from long ago might be here, very close to him.'

This makes tangible the major theme of ever-present history. His one neighbour is a man with a huge secret in his past and Adam himself is soon confronted by his own when he hears his cruel nickname, 'Nappy', being called out ('It is astounding how much history can be stored up in two syllables'). The man calling to him, Channing, purports to be an old school friend although Adam has no recollection of him whatsoever. First through embarrassment and then through the high regard he is clearly held in, he keeps up his pretence of recognition and finds himself being welcomed into Channing's life, his new-found good fortune. Away from the arrid wilderness of the karoo Channing presides over a verdant paradise, an improbable micro-climate in the valley of a mountain developed by his father to be a game park. He lives there with his coloured wife, Baby, '...an emblematic female figure, seen against the backdrop of a primal, primitive garden. All of it is very biblical', a point only reinforced by the arrival into this garden of Adam (Galgut's symbols aren't always subtle). He hopes that this will be the right enviroment for nurturing his poetic impulses; he literally follows the course of all the surrounding life to its wellspring and feels his writer's block lifting but it is the increasing number of encounters with Baby, the 'amoral Beauty', that feed his creativity. Channing seems to be quite happy to push them together whilst he gets on with his business, the uneasy relationships between all three of them being tested all the time by this proximity.

When back in the karoo he is faced by those ever present weeds in the garden. Galgut loads them with significance, making it a Sisyphean task, even the water he uses to soften the ground around them to aid his labour works against him. New green shoots start to appear and as he pulls one up he realises it is 'months away from becoming the tough, thorny adversary he’s been dealing with. But it will: the future is encoded in its cells. Generations of seeds are lying dormant under the surface, waiting for his labours to release them. The very means of clearing the yard is what will fill it again.'

This kind of metaphysical enquiry and his own indignation at the behaviour of others around him distracts Adam from his own moral failings as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into Channing's own schemes, where the future is to be built on the foundations of revenge for his past. There is almost the air of a thriller about the plotting, albeit one with moral ambiguity and philosophical musings. This helps keep the energy up in a book whose themes could have become leaden. Galgut gives one the sense that whilst the situation in South Africa isn't hopeless it is one in which the various participants are starting some way apart. Truth and Reconciliation, two more capitalised words, were the foundation of South Africa's new beginning, and still it seems an important part of its future. Galgut has placed himself at the forefront of articulating that process and this book should cement his status as the most exciting writer of his generation.


Friday, 5 December 2008

for Queen and country

Black Butterfly
by Mark Gatiss

With the arrival of Daniel Craig and even a new novel penned by Sebastian Faulks, Bond has made a hell of a comeback into the public imagination. Lucifer Box, the secret agent created by The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss first inhabited Edwardian England in The Vesuvius Club, a period he was perfectly suited to as a wit, dandy, and general man about town. His second adventure, The Devil In Amber found Box a good twenty years older but his passions undimmed as he foiled the ambitions of a fascist conspiracy in 1920's New York. It was almost inevitable that his third and final outing would be set in Bond's 1950's and find him unwillingly on the verge of retirement. After the suspicious suicide of an old flame he finds himself drawn into a final test of his skills, 'If not exactly raging against the dying of the light, I was at least a little cross with it.'

The plot follows a Bond like structure, exotic locations from Egypt to Jamaica and in spite of his age there's even a bit of action between the sheets for our hero (his advantage in this regard being that he bats 'for both the the First and Second Eleven, if you recall'). It doesn't quite hit the heights of his previous two outings but Gatiss has plenty of fun along the way, the Bond genre a perfect arena for his joyous punning. Every name and organisation is there to poke fun at something. Take for example 'Whitley Bey', half Turkish, half Geordie, 'the secret leader of a cadre of psychoanalysts-cum-mercenaries called the Jung Turks. Their speciality lay in imagining themselves into the mind of the enemy and then working out, through analysis, what their next move would be. If this failed they fell back on good old-fashioned Balkan brutality.'

To describe these books as a guilty pleasure would be a disservice to the writing. It's easy reading but in a joyous way, with plenty of wit to keep you chuckling. As stocking fillers go you could do far worse. There's also something still a little thrillingly controversial about having a bisexual leading man. Bond may be appealing to both men and women in his Speedos but I'm not sure he'd be prepared to go as far as Lucifer Box for Queen or country.


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

O, for a muse of fire

Charlie Brooker (or Charlton Brooker, as I amusingly discovered his full name to be recently) is always good for a laugh. His irreverent swipes on TV and popular culture often dissolve into the mental ramblings of a teenager who's spent too much time in his room on his own...well, watching TV.

But last night it all went a bit Alan Yentob, in a writers special in which he interviewed Russell T Davies (Queer As Folk, Doctor Who), Tony Jordan (Eastenders, Hustle, Life On Mars), Paul Abbot (State Of Play, Shameless), Graham Linehan (Father Ted, The IT Crowd), Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) about the writing process. It was fascinating and all the better for not being po-faced in any way. Thanks to the wonderous BBC iPlayer you can watch it here for the next 7 days.


Tuesday, 2 December 2008

I may not be a lady...

The Woman Who Talked Too Much was recently surprised to find that the GenderAnalyzer, which uses 'Artificial Intelligence' to determine whether the author of a blog is male or female, had decided that there was a 76% chance she was male (she has since convinced it that she's 95% female by blogging about Dirty Dancing and X Factor - although the biggest clue would surely be her blog title).

So what did it make of Just William's Luck? Again, don't let the title fool you, or the fact my last post was on a book called Dad Rules, GenderAnalyzer reckons: 79% female. Which I believe is one of the reasons my wife decided to marry me (when I tried to refute this she pointed out that when she returned from working away recently I had looked after our son single-handed, the house was spotless and I had made a cheesecake).

When checking its results against the truth GenderAnalyzer scores 54% correct, 46% incorrect, which with a 50/50 question makes it marginally better than tossing a coin. Artificial Intelligence indeed. Regardless, I shall try to redress the balance over the festive period with posts about football, Top Gear and birds. Oi, oi!


Sunday, 30 November 2008

behind the scenes at the bogey museum

Dad Rules
by Andrew Clover

As anyone who has become a parent recently will know there are a plethora of books available to help you get through those first few weeks, months, years. The sheer volume of titles is in itself unhelpful before we even start to consider how contradictory they all are. Driven through desperation to actually consult the health service with a question you will usually be greeted by the stock reply: 'Well, every baby is different' ('Yes, but is its vomit supposed to be green or do we have an exorcist-style situation going on here?').

Driven by a similar regard for the 200-plus page tomes he saw, Andrew Colver decided to write this book (you may have come across his musings in the Sunday Times Style magazine in the Dad Rules column) which he begins by condensing his parenting experience into three sentences

1) Don't be reading two-hundred page books. Try to sleep.
2) Don't let them suck too long, or mum's nip will really hurt.
3) Get out of the way when they puke.

That gives you a pretty good idea of the tone. Clover is a comedian and actor, so the book is filled with great one-liners. There have been plenty of jokes made about the emotional state of a woman in labour but nobody has put it quite so well as he does: 'You don't mess with a woman in labour. Even if she decides she wants to eat the baby, I'll back her up.'

He doesn't do much to dispel the myth that men are just big boys until they're forced to grow up by a woman (and even then they're just pretending to be grown up) but his innocence/ignorance makes him an entertaining guide into the world of parenting. What he really discovers is how to be happy. As we follow his stuttering acting career, his reliance on the weed to cope with comedy gigs, childcare, and just about anything really, he slowly learns to trust his instincts when looking after his daughters. If you're knackered, get creative:

'"You know what would be a really nasty trick?" I say. "If I fell asleep and, when I woke up, someone had painted all over my back."
I put my head on the table, and have a quiet doze. They paint my back. It's absolutely delicious. It feels like I'm being massaged by fairies.'

There are some refreshingly honest thoughts from a male perspective too.

'They say that women forget the pain of childbirth or they'd never do it again. Similarly, men must forget the pain of living with a pregnant woman, or the whole world would be like China. Families would have one child each. They'd also have fewer wardrobes.'

He does occasionally sound a little sentimental, as when he mentions that all his friends have become famous or disappeared but that's ok because he's bred two perfect companions. And as someone who can only dream of living in a place like Muswell Hill, the hard luck/no money story wore a little thin but where this book really succeeds is not with childcare philosophy or any kind of life lessons but with the relentless sense of humour which reminds you that as hard as it is, as tiring as it can be, it's still the best thing you'll ever do.


Friday, 28 November 2008

una odisea mexicana

The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño

I had a very strange experience whilst reading the early pages of this novel. Waiting in the award winning Madrid airport for a connecting flight I noticed a painting by Jack Vetriano on the front cover of the book being read by a man opposite me. I glanced at the title and was surprised to see 'Los Detectives Salvajes', the very same book I held my own hands. How a painting by a Scottish artist gets on the cover of the Spanish language version of a Chilean novelist's book set for the most part in Mexico I have no idea. But it almost seems appropriate (more so than than the equally unattractive UK version above) for this particular book, which takes the reader on a journey through Latin America and across Europe, with voices from all over the world, a true literary odyssey.

That this novel has received almost universal praise from critics is no great surprise. It is a novel all about writing, about books, and it is filled with an ardour for its subject which is infectious. Some characters are compelled to steal them, or to produce them, to take great pleasure in looking at or touching them. There is often a rhythm to the prose which leads you around its pages like a man leading his dance partner around the room, and Bolaño is a man who knows the dance, who knows how to lead. The first section of the book comes in the form of a diary written by seventeen year old Juan Garcia Madero, a budding poet who guides us through the last two months of 1975 in Mexico City. It is a short period of time but an eventful one for our orphan narrator who joins the visceral realist poetic movement, is virtually adopted by a family, has lots of sex and ends up speeding out of the city in a white Ford Impala pursued by a pimp and his heavies. And that's just the first 120 pages.

It is a riotous start that introduces us to a huge cast list of characters. Important amongst them are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the visceral realist movement. Belano functions as an an alter-ego of the author, whilst his compadre has a name which on its own conjures up the work of James Joyce and that original Greek odyssey. That love of books I mentioned earlier is shown here firstly by the theft these young poets indulge in from local bookstores, an act which is not so much motivated by their politics as by their poverty, and also in the production of their own magazine, Lee Harvey Oswald, a name at once political and yet ridiculous. The group is riven by infighting, with expulsions occurring like mini-revolutions and its members manage to pull off the feat of sounding simultaneously educated and stupid. In one hilarious episode we hear an example of their erudition.

Ernesto San Epifanio had said that all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn't say so. Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philienes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers. Walt Whitman, for example, was a faggot poet. Pablo Neruda was a queer. William Blake was definitely a faggot. Octavio Paz was queer. Borges was philene, or in other words he might be a faggot one minute and simply asexual the next. Ruben Dario was a freak, in fact the queen freak, the prototypical freak.

This rant goes on for three pages in which he explains that 'the poetry scene was essentially an (underground) battle, the result of a struggle between faggot poets and queer poets to seize the word'. For those with a better understanding of the surrealist poetical movements of Latin America in the 1970's this is probably even funnier, but there's plenty enough there for me thank you very much. There is wicked sense of humour running through almost every exchange and if we're not laughing with them we can often laugh at them.

Madero's sexual initiation comes courtesy of his contact with the Font family. At its head is Quim Font, an architect whose mind is slowly falling to pieces, who had designed the only two issues of Lee Harvey Oswald. His two daughters are the focal point for the attentions of many of the local males. Bolaño creates a feeling close to siege by having them live in a small house within the courtyard of the Font compound and this feeling will turn into an actual siege situation when Quim provides refuge to Lupe, a prostitute in hiding from her pimp. It is this situation which enforces the flight of Belano, Lima and Madero into the desert and it isn't until the final section of the book that we will find out, from the continuation of Madero's diary, where that takes them.

The majority of the book comes in the middle section entitled The Savage Detectives. It comes in the form of interview-like monologues, an oral history spanning 20 years, where people recount their experiences of Belano and Lima but also of course the parts they themselves have played in history. The range of personalities Bolaño creates is simply staggering, it reminded me of the cacophany of character which features in William Gaddis' gargantuan The Recognitions which drew a similarly riotous picture of the American art scene. From the wistful mezcal-soaked reminiscence of Amadeo Salvatierra, to the increasingly insane ramblings of the now incarcerated Quim Font, Bolaño knows how to make contrast work. One jaw-dropping example comes after we have heard a calm recollection from the old man of stridentism, Manuel Maples Arce on being interviewed by Belano, who finishes up by saying 'All poets, even the most avant-garde, need a father. But these poets were meant to be orphans.' We then meet Barbara Patterson, who had accompanied Belano that day, whose opening gambit is 'Motherfucking hemorrhoid-licking old bastard, I saw the distrust in his pale, bored little monkey eyes right from the start, and I said to myself this asshole will take every chance he gets to spit on me, the motherfucking son of a bitch.' How's that for contrast?

Some pieces extend to several pages almost like short stories within the text, like Auxilio Lacouture, the 'mother of Mexican poetry' who tells the story of her siege at the university during the campus violence of 1968. Or Norman Bolzman, a Mexican Jew, who comes close to summing up the style of this middle section when he says

'I'm just trying to tell a story. Maybe I'm also trying to to understand its hidden workings, workings I wasn't aware of at the time but that weigh on me now. Still, my story won't be as coherent as I'd like. And my role in it will flicker like a speck of dust between the light and the dark, between laughter and tears, exactly like a Mexican soap opera or a Yiddish melodrama.'

When we do finally get back to the diary of Madero we join the fugitives as they search for Cesárea Tinajero, the original founder of visceral realism, whose body of work has been reduced to a few scraps and who may not even still be alive. With the look we have been given at the future of some of these characters there is a very different feel to this final section, the vibrancy and feelings of invincibility have diminished; which doesn't necessarily make for a muted close, if I ran out of steam anywhere it was towards the end of the middle section, but there is a sadness that wasn't there before. The fact that Madero doesn't appear once in the oral history leads us to wonder why it is our 'hero' should disappear.

I'm really struggling to do the book justice here. There are much better reviews to be read here and here and probably elsewhere too but I can only say that to go on a ride with Bolaño is a drink, drug and sex-fuelled escapade that leaves you invigorated, your head tingling like you've been for a drive with the top down. It's certainly unlike anything I've read before and that change in tone towards the end of the novel points towards the publication next year of his final work, the apocalyptically titled '2666'. I'm ready and willing for the journey.


Thursday, 27 November 2008

my heart lies there

A Long, Long Way
by Sebastian Barry

After reading and enjoying The Secret Scripture courtesy of dovegreyreader it seemed only prudent to take heed of her claim that his previous novel was for her 'the best book that never won the Booker'. Quite a statement, on a topic which has even spawned its own competition in the blogosphere (in which Barry failed to make the cut). We won't get into a debate now about which books should have won when, but I think it's fair to say that in 2005, in a very strong field, John Banville's 'The Sea' was a surprise winner. Not having read it myself I can't really comment, but I loved a couple of the others and A Long Long Way absolutely floored me. I'm not a man given to tears and maybe I was just a bit tired but as I read the final few pages of this book I wept like a great big girly.

Before writing this post I had the good fortune to read an essay by Keith Jeffery in the Times Literary Supplement, in which he wrote about the Irish perspective on The Great War, in particular how this was expressed through theatre. Sean O'Casey's 'The Silver Tassie' (which was later adapted into an opera) and Frank McGuiness's much later play 'Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme' are two famous examples. Many men from Ireland fought for the Allied forces on the understanding that there would be Home Rule once victory had been won in Europe (many men from Ulster joined up for the very opposite reason of course but as Barry says in this book 'It was a deep, dark maze of intentions, anyhow'). But the shifting of Irish politics continued whilst those men were away, culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and life for Irish soldiers in the British Army became increasingly tough, seen as unreliable at best by those they served with and treacherous if not treasonable by those at home. There has been a popular conception that the fallout from the war, when it did eventually end, resulted in a form of national amnesia, with many people choosing to forget that those they knew might have fought for the British whilst Republicans were being killed at home, something that Jeffery refutes with his very interesting essay.

Barry's novel picks up on many of these themes. His hero is Willie Dunne, son of a policeman, whose 'damnable height' never reaches the six foot mark that would allow him to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead he sees his opportunity to make his father proud and impress Gretta Lawlor, the girl he yearns for, by signing up with Royal Dublin Fusiliers and going away to war. Dunne (sister to Annie Dunne the subject of Barry's 2002 novel of the same name) is a perfect narrator for this story, young and relatively innocent, his confusion is our confusion, and this conflict is one in which naivety is everywhere. As a reader I found myself wincing just with the concept of signing up 'for the duration', knowing that the war would last so long. Barry handles his first set piece brilliantly, the spectre of a yellow cloud moving toward the trenches and the bedlam unleashed as the poisoned gas takes its deadly toll is genuinely terrifying. As much for us, who know what is coming towards them, as for them who have no idea. Knowledge is no protector as he shows with the second gas attack. Armed with masks this time there is the even more terrifying prospect of remaining in place and allowing the gas to pass over, the efficacy of military hardware as much a problem then as it is now. It is something which Dunne himself never really recovers from, his sorrow at losing Captain Pasley, who remains behind in the trenches even though it means death, changes:

'...something had happened to that sorrow. It had gone rancid in him, he thought; it had boiled down to something he didn't understand. The pith of sorrow was in the upshot a little seed of death.'

Almost worse than what he suffers on the front are the trips he makes back home. The first of these places him right amongst the Easter Rising as it happens and he is traumatised again by witnessing the death of a rebel at close hand. Our young hero begins to feel the stirrings of his self, begins to form opinions, starts to do what he had been exhorted to do by Gretta's father: to 'know his own mind'. And this places him in conflict with his father. This is one of the great themes of the book and the letters that pass between Willie and his father have a great significance, as letters must have done, and still do, in war time. But with the un-mooring of that security he felt at home he finds life on the front harder and harder to deal with.

The conflict between the various factions of Irish politics are seen in microcosm in the army and given a grand event in the boxing match which pits Ulsterman against Southerner, two giants of men who trade blows whilst the assembled men shout from around the hall. The epic fight almost silences the crowd and when one man finally fells the other, in spite of the bragging rights which inevitably go to the victor's side there is a new found respect between the two groups of men. Barry certainly has great skills in creating memorable characters: Christy Moran, the Sergeant-Major with a filthy mouth provides most of the one-liners, his clowning keeping morale high. Father Buckley provides spiritual support as well as an ear to confide fears and doubts. A fellow soldier, Jesse Kirwan, who Willie encounters first in Dublin during the rebel uprising, becomes the focal point of Willie's political maturation.

As the title suggests, music plays an enormously important role, in particular the singing amongst the men and this is his other great achievement in the book. Barry allows the prose to become infused in musical language so that in the theatre of war 'grief was as common as whistle tunes', and it is only the men there fighting (rather than the officers safely away from the battle) that know 'the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line'. Amongst the men, music becomes the great leveller, as when their Captain requests that they sing 'Do Your Balls Hang Low'. Willie himself is blessed with a great voice and in a beautifully rendered scene he sings Ave Maria 'for these ruined men, these doomed listeners, these wretched fools of men come out to fight a war without a country to their name'. It is hard to steer a course that avoids sentimentality when dealing with these scenes and it is to Barry's credit that he avoids not just that but also what Jeffery calls 'the flawed understanding of the war, including constant casualties, incessant misery, homoerotic trench relationships and the rest.'

As someone who has read very little literature of The Great War I feel that I have learnt not just something of the grim realities of warfare but, through the sympathetic creation of a character like Willie Dunne, something of that notion of sacrifice which has played such a huge part in its depiction in our culture.


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

'Everybody likes the gory details'

Our Story Begins
by Tobias Wolff

When John Self use the phrase 'my favourite book of the year so far' in September then it's time to sit up and take notice. Doubly so when it's an author you've had no contact with so far. I've been trying trying to fall in love with the short story this year by reading some of the established masters (Carver, Cheever, Chekhov - as they used to say on Sesame Street: these stories were brought to you by the letters C, E and V - weird). Wolff in fact worked with Carver on the faculty of Syracuse University and the cover of this collection proudly proclaims Wolff as the greatest living exponent of the form, bringing together 21 of his previously published stories with 10 new works. As someone new to his work (bar having watched the film adaptation of This Boys Life) it provided a brilliant overview of his writing and certainly compels me, as John suggested it might, to search out more.

There are two things that strike me about his writing. First of all is the accessibility. Wolf's language is uncomplicated, the speech colloquial, but written with the playwright's skill of making a few words mean so much more. John has quoted a great example of Wolff's showiest dialogue but he can also do understatement like this example in his story about a very male kind of friendship in 'Flyboys'.

'I waited while Freddy went into the barn, and when he came back outside I said, "We're going to move." Though no one had told me any such thing, those words came to mind and it felt right to say them.
Freddy handed me a shovel. "Where to?"
"I don't know."

"I'm not sure."
We started back.

"I hope you don't move," Freddy said.

"Maybe we won't," I said "Maybe we'll end up staying."

"That would be great, if you stayed."

"There's no place like home."

"Home is where the heart is," Freddy said, but he was looking at the ground just ahead of him and didn't smile back at me.'

Often it is the perfectly chosen phrase or detail which Wolff gets to work so well for him: the boarding house 'heavy with the smells that disheartened people allow themselves to cultivate' or the 'lollipop-red' sports car in which one man drives to visit his dying mother, a car which, given the occasion, he admits is 'maybe a little festive'.

The second thing is the aspect to his writing for which I gather he is well known: morality. In many of the stories he forces his characters to show honestly which direction their moral compass is facing. Sometimes he does this blatantly, as in 'The White Bible', where a school teacher, on her way home after drinks with friends, is effectively kidnapped by the father of one of her pupils. His wish for his son Hassan to become a doctor stands in jeapordy, the teacher having caught him cheating in an exam. As he forces her to drive, he calls into question her own morals; first her drinking, then hypocrisy, even the fact that she teaches at a Catholic school without actually being Catholic herself (his indignation here making himself a hypocrite). The enforced parent-teacher conference allows Wolff to explore many of their moral facets, and having placed Maureen in a position of physical danger he allows the dramatic tension to shift slowly in the teachers favour until it is she who is in the position of power, who holds the fate of this man in her hands, but still unresolved what she will do with the future of Hassan which she also controls.

These morality tales are sometimes resolved in some sense, like the slap delivered by a policewoman to the smooth talking lawyer in 'The Deposition', but more often they are allowed to hang there, the questions raised, the points of view expressed with honesty and the conclusion, the answer, the moral of the tale left for us to decide or infer. In 'The Night In Question' Wolff has the confidence to make an actual moral quandary the centre of his story, delivering it with the gripping intensity of a thriller, only to then leave it unfinished and show that this is really a story about a sister's love for her brother. Brilliant and brave stuff.

In one of the shortest stories, 'Say Yes', which is just five pages, he manages to pull apart a relationship as a couple wash the dishes. The man thinks inter-racial relationships are a bad idea,

'"A person form their culture and a person from our culture could never really know each other." "Like you know me?" His wife asked. "Yes. Like I know you."

When he returns from the bathroom with a plaster for her cut finger she is ready for him: 'I'm black, but still me, and we fall in love. Will you marry me?'. They say that there's no such thing as a wrong answer but this isn't always the case in relationships. We are willing him to say the right thing and when he doesn't and the two of them break away from each other like balls on a pool table Wolff shows first the man's ability to recognise his wife's demonstrations of indifference (thereby showing the trouble he's in) and finally, crucially, the uncertainty of ever really knowing anyone.

I could right a whole post on just that one story to be honest. There is a richness to these stories which isn't necessarily apparent at first, perhaps because of the language he uses or the lack of pyrotechnics stylistically. Only once did I find myself thinking that the set-up was a bit tricksy ('Her Dog', in which a man conducts a 'conversation' with his deceased partner's dog) and even then he justifies it by using it describe a relationship, two relationships, with crystal clarity. When Wolff allows those skills to take flight with a longer story like 'Desert Breakdown, 1968' you have a heady concoction filled with symbolism, driven with energy and punch, a story I can't begin to do justice to here. The best thing would be for you to read it yourself. And all the rest too obviously. You won't regret it.


Monday, 24 November 2008

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 at The National Portrait Gallery

Before you enter Annie Leibovitz's new show it is possible for everyone to see four images from her now infamous shoot with the Queen. As we stood there looking at them my wife overheard someone saying 'She looks so regal, I mean that is royalty'. They are indeed rather austere and there is a very strange quality to them; they don't look real. The Queen looks more like a waxwork placed in a dramatic setting and the lighting looks forced making the pictures look more like paintings than photographs, which may indeed be the point, but actually sucks the life out of them as portraits. Once you actually get inside the retrospective is a combination of her celebrity portraits, personal photos of family and friends (including many of her partner Susan Sontag), reportage from Sarajevo and even her first work in landscape. It is a curious mixture, and it really is mixed up. The portrait of a pregnant Demi Moore is surrounded by her reportage from Sarajevo, one of which, a striking image of an abandoned bicycle and a vicious swipe of blood, the remnants of a mortar falling, shows all too clearly this juxtaposition of life and death.

Death is obviously something which haunts this exhibition. The photographs documenting the illness and death of Susan Sontag are bound to divide people. I personally found the later ones a little ghoulish and uncomfortable, finding far more in the more relaxed pictures she had taken of them both on their travels together or simply lounging around at home or in hotels. It was Sontag who had encouraged Leibovitz to take more personal photos and it these for me which are the most interesting to look at. There isn't much to be gained from seeing the familiar pictures of celebrities from magazines blown up, although her portraits of politicians I found slightly more interesting mainly due to the benefit of hindsight. Given what we know now it's difficult not to snigger at her picture of Bill Clinton in the Oval Office perched confidently on the desk with one hand lying in his lap. The group picture of Bush's White House team (looking much younger) shows the traits they went on to exhibit during both of his terms: the reptilian smirk of Dick Cheney, the demonstrative seriousness of Condoleezza Rice and the arrogant raised eyebrow of Donald Rumsfeld, all in the one picture.

But with her pictures of friends and family there is real life and love. They are the kind of candid photos we all take but whether it's family gatherings or the informal shots of her parents on the beach or getting out of bed they show her skills at composition transferred to a more immediate form than the studio photography which dominates the rest of the show. It is a shame that for the most part these images are so small, I couldn't help but think that they would have benefited from enlarging in a way the editorial images didn't. One picture which she has taken of her mother tells a great story. Her mother was afraid of looking old whilst Leibovitz of course was unafraid of showing her exactly as she was, keen in fact to get away from the family tradition of always smiling in photos. She found herself weeping behind the camera as she shot. Her parents disliked the picture when they saw it, but I think it has the kind of honesty and affection which can make a much more compelling portrait. Just imagine if she'd been given the opportunity to take a similar photograph of The Queen.


Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Killers - Day and Age

I'm going to keep this brief. There was something quite joyful about The Killers performance at 2005's Glastonbury. Togged up in a white tuxedo jacket with a hint of eyeliner and poised behind his glittery keyboard like some kind of glamorous preacher Brandon Flowers cut quite a figure and stirred up the crowds with rousing renditions of hits from Hot Fuss. Sam's Town was a little more po-faced, the Springsteen sound and moustaches making him look like a slightly less glamorous preacher. So it should be good news that their new album sees a return of the synth pop.

But it's all gone a bit 80's. Fine when it's inoffensively Roxy Music like opening track 'Losing Touch'. Worrying when it's Wham (amongst others) on 'Joy Ride', which even contains a sax solo. And it's just plain baffling when the backing vocals on 'This Is Your Life' remind you of the 'a-wimba-way' from Tight Fit's 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'. It sounds in places ('I Can't Stay') like Brandon's finger slipped on the keyboard and changed the setting of a song suddenly to marimba or steel drums or perhaps they wanted to showcase the full range of settings available on the latest Bontempi. 'Goodnight, Travel Well' eschews the 80's in favour of trying to sound like Radiohead which is better but probably best left to the boys themselves.

Lyrically there's plenty to worry about too. He may be referencing Hunter S Thompson but 'Are we human, or are we dancer?' still sounds like he's singing from a lyric sheet with a typo. 'A Dustland Fairtytale' couldn't be more cliched with Cinderella and the Devil amongst 'castles in the sky' and 'moon river'. Elsewhere there's lots of grand sounding statements to fit the grand sounding songs which are sure to please festival crowds once more and radio listeners alike. Unfortunately it all sounds a little hollow to me. However if you've enjoyed the latest from Kings of Leon and Keane (ooh, bit of a K thing developing here) then jump on board and enjoy the (joy) ride.


Friday, 21 November 2008

lost in translation

I'm back. And whilst I'm washing the sand from my undies, and before I get round to reviewing my reading, I thought I'd post a couple of observations from Gran Canaria.

  • The Spanish have not implemented a smoking ban. This is because smoking seems to be the national pastime. They smoke everywhere, all the time, on the move, and mostly strong cigarettes. This kind of ruins the whole alfresco eating thing for an ex-smoker-parent like me.
  • The Spanish love children. I mean absolutely love them (although they don't let this get in the way of smoking- many mothers have perfected the art of holding a child, smoking and gesticulating during conversation at the same time). I think my son thinks he's famous after all the attention he received whilst out and about. He looked quite put out once back in London where, let's be honest, you have to work pretty hard to get anyone to look up from reading their free newspaper.
  • The Spanish don't seem to have heard of high chairs. You either have the child on your lap or feed them in their buggy. As a result our buggy now looks like a lost work by Jackson Pollock.
  • I love those lovely bits of literal translation which can make reading a menu a confusing experience. My two favourites were hummus made from 'the finest cheak-pie' and a sandwich containing 'muffled zucchini' (which turned out to be a thin slice of courgette, battered and fried).
  • Babies love eating sand.

All three books I read whilst away are great. I can't wait to tell you what I thought. But I'll have to. And so will you.


Tuesday, 18 November 2008

can you tell what it is yet?


Sunday, 16 November 2008

snow shadows


Friday, 14 November 2008

Kenneth Branagh as Richard III


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Pool reflection in Wales


Monday, 10 November 2008

Snowy trees in Kent


Saturday, 8 November 2008

a mermaid sleeps


Thursday, 6 November 2008

Lancashire landscape


Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Free music festival, Clapham


Sunday, 2 November 2008

Alexandra Park in autumn


Saturday, 1 November 2008

out of office reply

I'm going to be away for a few weeks, looking after baby whilst my wife directs an opera in Gran Canaria (I know, it's a tough gig). I won't leave you with nothing though, over the next few days I'll be sending you virtual postcards; all original images taken by me and my trusty camera over the years. I hope you enjoy and I'll be back with reviews of my holiday reading near the end of the month. Adios!


Friday, 31 October 2008

Son Of Rambow

Earlier this year I wrote about my experience watching a film at The Rex cinema in Berkhamsted. It's the kind of cinema that reminds you of the magic of the movies so it seems highly appropriate that this film, which shows how that same magic can bring two completely different boys together in celebration of it, should open with a shot of that very same cinema.

One of those boys, Lee Carter, is busy inside making a pirate copy of Rambo: First Blood. Outside, Will, whose fatherless family are part of the Plymouth Brethren, is asked if he will read as part of the congregation gathered there. He is excluded from socialising with outsiders and from watching TV or listening to music so when after a run-in with Lee he ends up watching the aforementioned pirate video his outlook on the world is transformed. His bible, already covered in intricate drawings is now the storyboard for his imagination, at the heart of which is his wish to see his Father again.

Lee meanwhile, a keen amateur film maker is involved in making his entry for the Screen Test competition. He enlists Will as his stuntman, a task he throws himself at with gusto, literally. Together, these two very different boys find friendship in their shared love of film-making. There are some lovely performances from the two boys, plenty of jokes at the expense of the early 1980's and a genuine love of film making has obvioulsly been the driving force behind it all. There's a silly little sub-plot about a French exchange student, who turns heads as soon as he leaves the bus, and his wish to be a film star; the whole thing brilliantly subverted when he gets back on the bus to go home and is greeted by howls of derision from his French classmates, who think he's far from cool.

There are some nice creative touches too with small moments of animation to bring Will's doodling to life and also the perfect rendering of lo-fi film making. But most of all it's the charm that wins you over, a particularly British sense of how to get things done, making for a genuinely enjoyable film.


Thursday, 30 October 2008

Margot & the Nuclear So and So's - Not Animal

Margot & the Nuclear So and So's - Real Naked Girls

First, a little background. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's are a 'musical collective' from Indianapolis headed by Richard Edwards (There is no Margot, that name apparently referencing the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tennenbaum's). Their first album The Dust of Retreat was critically well received in the States but they are little known elsewhere. The release of their second album was delayed after wrangling with their label Epic over track listing. Eventually a compromise was reached. The bands choice was released on vinyl entitled Animal!, whilst the label's preference was released as Not Animal on vinyl and CD. It is the latter that I have been listening to (and which contains five songs from the band's selection) and whatever the disagreements there is a lot to admire. My suspicion was that the label would pick tracks more likely to make the band palatable, risking the loss of some of their essence along the way, but if you're new to the band like me it's probably not a bad place to start.

The band's use of interesting instrumentation has lead to comparisons with Arcade Fire. Violins and brass make regular appearances along with other slightly more obscure sounds and the arrangements often have that collective feel to them where several people seem to be banging away at something or other as their voices chorus together. Riding above this Edwards has a surprisingly pure, clear voice with which he sings often very unclear lyrics, by which I mean the kind of story-telling poetry which doesn't explain itself (check out the pages on Songmeanings.com and see the different things people think just the opening track, 'A Children's Crusade on Acid' might mean)

Tracks like 'Cold, Kind and Lemon Eyes', 'As Tall As Cliffs' and 'Hello, Vagina' do sound a little like Arcade Fire but also reminded me of Conor Oberst's work as Bright Eyes and an album called Self Help Serenade by Marjorie Fair; influenced by folk but filled with energy and passion (oh, and also the historical feel to work by The Decembrists). Just when you think you know how the whole album will sound you get the church organ which begins 'Real Naked Girls', and seems to usher in a peaceful atmosphere but all that changes as an angelic chorus joins in and Edwards sings 'There was dark crimson blood/It had covered the carpets, the screams were distorted/And that old Christian judge/Gave out fifty to life like he was handing out chocolate/But it's too late to flee/But you can help me breathe/Through this gruesome scene.' Very unsettling stuff, simple and effective.

After that the second half of the album attempts to crank up the volume and impact a little. Heavy guitars and mariachi trumpets drive 'Pages Written On A Wall' nicely, but things go a little far on the horrible 'The Shivers (I Got 'Em)', especially as Edwards hollers 'I want to gouge out your eyes, splinter your spine' and other lines which could be accused of misogyny. His voice isn't best suited to these tracks anyway and they leave a nasty taste which sours the sweetly sung closer 'Hip Hip Hooray'. So in fact the label's choices didn't necessarily make for a palatable taster, but the poor finish aside, there's lots to enjoy on this album. I find myself intrigued to hear the other side of the story.


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