Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Oliver Postgate

Oliver Postgate (above left, with Peter Firmin) died yesterday. Oliver's autobiography Seeing Things is an enjoyable read, but the real pleasure is of course the films. Here are a small selection:

The Pingwings:

The Pogles:

Noggin the Nog:

Ivor the Engine:



Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Qualified disclaimer

I'm the sort of person who regards it as mandatory to sit through a film's end credits. Key Grip, Gaffer, Best Boy, Focus Puller, the lot; how much simpler when it simply said 'The End' or with French movies the definitive brevity of 'Fin'. So it might not entirely surprise you that I give close attention to the copyright page whenever I start reading a book. The usual 'The author asserts his right....' down to the who and where of the printer credits. About the only thing I tend to gloss over is the ISBN number, although even that sometimes has its fascination.

I've just taken Stephen Clarke's Dial M for Merde out of the library. So it's Stephen Clarke who has asserted his rights this time around, but it was the subsequent paragraph that caught my eye:

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Except in the case of historical fact? Presumably that means 'unless it's true'; it certainly covers a multitude of sins, authorial or otherwise.

Anyway it's typeset in 11/14 point Jansen Falcon Oast Graphic Art Ltd and printed by CPI Mackays of Chatham, Kent, in case you were wondering.

The next page has a brief quotation from Goethe's Faust, but one page further on and Stephen Clarke offers another disclaimer:

For legal reasons, I am obliged to stress that this novel in no way implies that the current President of France receives sexual favours from his female staff. That would be an outrageous - and totally unbelievable - allegation.

One of those book quizzes

I found this menu of questions about books at normblog. Norm found it at Harriet's place and she found it....

What was the last book you bought?
Home by Marilynne Robinson. A signed first printing at that.

Name a book you have read more than once
I’m rather inclined to the view that if a book’s worth reading it’s worth reading more than once, so a good number of my books are well used. Sometimes I find an old favourite makes a good 'comfort' read not least because I know I'm going to enjoy it. But often I find repeated readings bring out things that I missed first time around. The last book I re-read was The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?
Lawrence, his entire oeuvre.

How do you choose a book? e.g., by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews
All of the above at one time or another. Often these days by browsing at the local library. Online reviews. A familiar author definitely helps.

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve a marginal preference for non-fiction, particularly critical writing.

What's more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?
I can pass on both those. A well-crafted book needs neither.

Most loved/memorable character
Rupert Bear!

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?
Nightstand? What's a nightstand? I have a copy of A Broad Canvas: Art in East Anglia by Ian Collins in my bathroom at the moment.

What was the last book you've read, and when was it?
I’ve almost finished Home. Before that Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?
All too often. If I’m finding it heavy going I check the ending and decide if the journey there is likely to justify persisting. Some books never really seem to engage at all; when they've sat unread too long I know that they're not not likely to enthuse. My last abandoned read was Made in Heaven by Adèle Geras - far too girlie for me I'm afraid.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Our planet...

Some stunning photographs (via Norm)

Unfortunately, since posting this link the majority of the photos (but by no means all) have been taken down. Yann Arthus-Bertrand's own website is worth a visit, although it's not the easiest to navigate.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Work in progress: Suffolk coast

I've had one or two requests to show my own work, so I thought I'd start showing some paintings as they develop. This one, like the bulk of my work, is not a planned composition, rather I tend to let the painting and its content develop as I go along. At this point I have only sketched out the sky and a beach, but I'll post updates as it progresses.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Amazon Trickery

I'm replicating a post from the blog written by Clare Sudbery for Bookarazzi (via Elizabeth Baines's FictionBitch in my case). With apologies, I've not been able to copy the links yet, due to problems with Blogger. I'll sort as soon as I am able.

Amazon has been removing the “buy button” from some of the Hachette Livre books and also removing some of their titles from promotional positions such as “Perfect Partner”, in order to apply pressure on them to give Amazon even better commercial terms than it presently receives.

Larger British book retailers already receive the most generous terms in the English-language world from publishers, including Hachette Livre. Of the “cake” represented by the recommended retail price of a general book, major retailers including Amazon already receive on average well over 50%. Despite these advantageous terms, Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at the publishers' expense. (You may have read in the press a few weeks ago of Amazon’s penalties against Bloomsbury and its authors). If this continued, it would not be long before Amazon got virtually all of the revenue that is presently shared between author, publisher, retailer, printer and other parties. (Again, you may have read that in the USA Amazon has been demanding that it should take over the printing, initially of print-on-demand titles, dictating its own royalty terms to publishers and authors). Hachette Livre are politely but firmly saying that these encroachments need to stop now. Declining all additional terms demands is the approach that HL take with all major retailers, and it is particularly important in relation to Amazon.

Amazon has grown very rapidly since it launched and it now makes some 16% of all book sales in Britain. The creativity, value and range offered and the standards of service that have made Amazon so successful, are respected. At its present rate of growth, which was 30% last year, Amazon would become the largest bookseller in Britain in about three years. The retail market for book is not increasing and therefore much of this growth would inevitably come at the expense of “bricks and mortar” booksellers. This is of course not a criticism of Amazon, and no publisher can or should tell the public where to shop. However, it is a concern that more and more traditional booksellers are having to close their doors, with skilled individual booksellers losing their jobs, and this is due in part to Amazon’s aggressively low pricing on prominent titles. Therefore, despite their limited role in respect of these changes in the retail landscape, Hachette Livre are determined not to provide Amazon with further ammunition with which it could damage booksellers who offer a personal service, browsing facilities and other valuable benefits to the reading public.

Amazon’s reputation to date has been built on range, service and honest recommendations to customers. Their current actions represent reduced range and service together with distorted recommendations – effectively creating a breach of trust between Amazon and its customers, particularly its “Prime” customers who have paid to have free delivery on a comprehensive range of books."

Hachette Livre is a large umbrella organisation, which encompasses the following publishers:

Little, Brown Book Group (includes Abacus, Virago, Sphere, Piatkus, Orbit, Atom)
Orion Publishing Group (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Gollancz)
Headline Publishing Group
Hodder & Stoughton (includes Sceptre)
Hachette Children's Books (includes Franklin Watts, Orchard, Hodder, Wayland)
Hodder Education Group
John Murray
Octopus Publishing Group (includes Bounty, Cassel, Conran Octopus, Hamly, Gaia, Mitchell Beazley, Miller, Philips)
They also have subsidiaries in India, Aus, NZ...

This isn't the first time Amazon has used this tactic. Earlier this year Amazon.com removed Buy buttons from selected books of publishers who refused to switch their Print-on-demand publishing to Amazon's newly bought POD company (see Bookseller story here (http://tinyurl.com/3efuy5)). They really are bullies.

Amazon and the supermarkets have consistently been putting the squeeze on publishers in this way, making it harder and harder for independent publishers to operate, not to mention small bookshops (who don't have the same muscle and can't compete). The ultimate losers are the authors, who get a smaller and smaller slice of the pie. I got 70p per book with a cover price of £10.00. When books are sold at a discount, the author gets significantly less than that (percentages vary according to contract, but they're typically less than 10% of cover price).

Things you can do to help:

Contact Amazon (http://tinyurl.com/4skfzf)
Copy this post, or write your own, on your blog / website / via email
Boycott Amazon (alternative book sources: localbookshops.co.uk, abebooks.co.uk, bookdepository.co.uk, Waterstones.com, Play.com, actual physical bookshops, or where possible buy through authors' and publishers' own websites).
Write to newspapers
Contact the competition commission (email: info@cc.gsi.gov.uk This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Friday, 30 May 2008


It's been and gone for another year, and it's not something that I've watched for a considerable while now seeing as how my household is television-less. Maybe it's on the wireless too? Not Radio 1, that's for sure, but I've never looked. It could of course be that it's made its way to Radio 3 by now, seeing as how they've almost abandoned the classical music lover entirely.

It is a great source of entertainment though, and it's curious that only the Brits seem to appreciate its true awfulness. Terry Wogan seems an irreplaceable element in the evening's entertainment, so it's sad to hear that he's thinking of stepping down. Any successor is on a hiding to nothing, that's for sure. They'll not be able to play it straight, and it'll be difficult to find a different angle for humour.

Actually, not having a TV diminishes the pleasure of the contest not one iota. It takes only one single Wogan quote (this year he described an act as like 'the four brides of Frankenstein and a man with a washing line') to make me laugh out loud.

It's disappointing that the UK never applies itself seriously to finding an act that really lives down to our expectations of Eurovision (well, some would say we do), rather than simply going for the irredeemably naff.

Other bloggers have been very good on Eurovision. The one I enjoyed most was Rachel from North London, although Norm struck a slightly more serious note over on the wonderful normblog. Norm offers the usual excuse (we only really used to watch it for the children) with the almost plausible (we only watched 'about half a dozen songs' this year) before he deals at length with the unfairness of the voting system. I rather suspect that he watches the programme avidly from beginning to end, despite his denials. Given the surreal nature of the contest, it is difficult to see what a 'fair' voting system could possibly add to the already ludicrous.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Book Swap

Jeanette Winterson has been sounding off about book-swapping, and has stirred up a fair bit of comment, so I'll put my own ha'p'orth in too.

Her position is ludicrous; authors are not being cheated in the slightest by book exchanges. The curious notion that a book should only be read by the original purchaser is about as daft as suggesting that cars should only be travelled in by the first owner. A book after all can only be read by one person at a time, quite unlike the comparison she makes with file sharing, where material is repeatedly duplicated. And it is a book on which the author has received a royalty.

Just suppose that Ms Winterson were taken with an urge to fling away a good part of that next large advance on an Aston Martin. Would she refuse to consider buying a used car on the basis that it cheats AML of their proper reward for having designed and built it? Of course she wouldn't. The only logical conclusion of Ms Winterson's rationale is that all second-hand trade, of any nature whatsoever, be banned. And that books should be burned as soon as they've been read.

Then of course she has a moan about royalty returns. That's a somewhat different matter, but the hard truth is that it is the writer who accepts the terms offered by a publisher, and they are not forced to. They can always look elsewhere or, since it has never been easier, elect to self-publish. Not whinge on about how hard done by they feel.

Ms Winterson's debut novel was terrific but lets face it the rest have been a sequence of dull, pretentious duds. If she doesn't like the idea of her books being swapped, she could always try writing ones that people want to keep.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The joy of vinyl.

Even as CD sales plummet, vinyl sales are very much on the up. This is not entirely surprising. The progression from LP to cassette to CD and now to digital download has made music a disposable commodity; download today, delete tomorrow. The fragile LP though always demanded respect; the ease with which it was damaged underlined the value of the music relative to that of the plastic disc that stored it. If you cared for the music you had to care for the record.

The new Portishead album came out this week, their first in over ten years. It's lengthy, a double disc on vinyl, primarily rhythm driven now against their earlier work's sense of melodic structure. I had to wait an extra day to get it on vinyl (you can't exactly pick it up on your weekly supermarket shop) but it was worth it. I'm still finding my way into it, but it has flagged up one of the less obvious benefits of vinyl. You're limited to hearing the music in bites of 20 minute or so, a pain with classical music, but a real boon for just about everything else. Different sides of a record tend to take on their own individual character, regardless of artistic intention, and listeners do tend to acquire a 'favourite' side over time. On top of that you can't easily skip the tracks that lack immediate impact, so they do tend to get equal time in the listening process. I wouldn't want to listen to this record straight through on a CD, the sheer length would dull my responses.

At the moment it's side 4 that has caught my attention. I love the long bass notes towards the end, falling somewhere between a ship's foghorn and an air raid siren. I suspect that I'm actually going to work my way through the record back to front, because side 3 is sounding pretty good too now. I don't mean to sound half-hearted because I'm not. But some music requires a little familiarity before you fully appreciate it, and vinyl eases you in almost without you realising.

Only one complaint here. The LP sleeve offers a wonderful opportunity for striking artwork, but Portishead haven't taken it.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008


To coincide with the release of Mike Leigh's latest film, Faber have finally included him in their ongoing series where film directors talk about their own work, and 'Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh' doesn't disappoint. Nor does Pathé's DVD boxset which contains all but this most recent of his cinematic features, many of which have never made it to DVD before. If only the same could be done with his TV work.

Nearly all Leigh's early work was in the theatre or at the BBC; those were happier times and the BBC still had a strong commitment to supporting the arts. 'Abigail's Party' (a 'Play for Today' adapted from his earlier stage version) is probably his best known TV piece , with Alison Steadman doing an unforgettable turn as the monstrous Bev. My personal favourite from that period would have to be 'Nuts in May', the one where a couple of naïve back-to-nature types take a camping holiday. There were consistent features that marked his work - the characters were grotesques, their character flaws exaggerated beyond belief. Mainly people with poor social skills, struggling to find their way through life, or those achieving a little upward mobility driven by their innate snobbery. Men tended to be obsessive and wimpish. Women are always the cornerstone of the largely dysfunctional relationships, either because they dominate the men, or because they are willing to forbear their inadequacies. Estuary accents lend working-class 'authenticity' at every turn.

When the BBC lost interest in arts filming, Leigh and his compatriots migrated to cinema; over the subsequent years Leigh’s work noticeably changed. Characterisation became less caricature, more rounded, and what many had seen as his sneering attitude to the working classes, where characters were there to be laughed at rather than with, faded . By the time he made ‘Secrets and Lies’, possibly his greatest film, he had achieved a perfect balance between ‘realism’ and the working out of his own obsessions. Brenda Blethyn stole the show as a single mother whose adoptive daughter seeks her out. But it was a great ensemble piece, sympathetic to all the characters, although Phyllis Logan does give the obligatory tour of her home. Three toilets! Leigh loves to mark characters level of social aspiration; their house, the décor and furnishings, especially the number of toilets they have. Secrets and Lies was one of those films that had everyone buzzing and happy as they left the cinema; it was the film that finally let Leigh make the leap from arthouse to multiplex.

He followed it with 'Career Girls', a film that felt relatively lightweight on first viewing. Two girls, who had shared a house several years before when they were at University, meet up for a weekend in London. It intercuts between how they are now and how they were as this pair of painfully awful grungy students, and therein lies the film’s very enjoyable humour. As the film goes on, coincidence piles on coincidence (even Thomas Hardy would have complained at the plot contrivance) and it becomes apparent that we are watching an allegory on the excesses of late Thatcherism.

Then there was 'Topsy-Turvy', a surprising change of direction with a bio-pic about Gilbert and Sullivan and the writing of the Mikado. Flawless and irresistible, if it had a problem it was that it appealed to the Merchant-Ivory crowd. They of course turned out in their droves for the film that followed, 'All or Nothing' but are unlikely to have enjoyed it; it demanded very different sensibilities of its audience. A microscopic study of a family at breaking point, it was 127 minutes of utter misery, then maybe 30 seconds of happy ending for those who sat it out. It was Leigh at his best, and probably the film to which 'Happy-Go-Lucky' is intended as a riposte. Finally 'Vera Drake', a commercial success but Leigh’s poorest film in a long while.

Leigh’s history is important because his new film not only harks back to earlier work, but is a significant piece in what has become a fairly large jigsaw. It must in part be a response to those who have complained over the years that he only ever has miserable characters in his films. Even those who recognise the absurdity of that perception would have thought any suggestion of a Leigh film loaded to the brim with happiness pretty implausible. Until now, that is. Because 'Happy-Go-Lucky' offers nearly two hours of unrestrained cheerfulness from Poppy, a single 30 year old primary school teacher. She’s not just happy, she’s happy with an unbearable manic intensity. She’s Leigh’s most grotesque screen character yet, and that is saying something if you are familiar with his earlier creations.

The first surprise comes as the film starts. It’s in full ‘scope, and it’s Leigh’s first use of the longer widescreen format. There’s a slight tease for cineastes as he plays with split-screen while the credits role before the picture finally spreads across the entire screen. Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope gets the best out of the format, and the picture, filmed to Fuji celluloid rather than any sort of digital media is nothing short of spectacular.

Against the opening credits, Poppy, cycles across Blackfriars Bridge. If we didn’t know that there was a camera car alongside her, we would fear for her safety; she looks everywhere but ahead of her (as do we, hence the split-screen) as she pedals furiously, apparently oblivious of the traffic around her. But there’s worse to come, because once she’s in the bookshop she starts talking, trying to start a conversation of sorts with the man behind the till, and immediately we’re embarrassed by the way she seems so oblivious to the obvious annoyance her laughing and joking causes. I say conversation, but that is one of the things that marks Poppy out; her conversations are one-way affairs, and she rarely engages with anyone sufficiently to see things from their side, as her continuous and intrusive chatter just continues long past the point of rudeness.

Your heart sinks when Poppy announces to her flatmate that she’s booked herself in for driving lessons (unless by now you’re thinking that a serious accident would be no bad thing) since she lacks sufficient concentration span to buckle a seatbelt, let alone get behind the wheel. But it is the driving lessons, and her interaction with her driving instructor Scott that is the core of the film. Tattooed across Scott’s forehead in six inch high letters it says ‘BORDERLINE PSYCHOTIC, DON’T WIND ME UP’. No it doesn’t, but it might as well do. As his inner demons and repressed rage threaten to erupt at any moment, the only person who fails to spot it is Poppy. The audience is almost as stressed as Scott as her constant joking cranks him up right from the off; if he wasn’t so utterly dysfunctional, loaded with tics and neuroses, and racist to boot we’d be sympathising with him. As it is we look on in horror, knowing that one way or another his fuse will blow before the film is out.

At one point Poppy goes to visit a sister who is married, living close to the sea, and in a singularly unrealistic state of pregnancy (her maternity dress bears an astonishing similarity to Bev’s outfit from 'Abigail'). As soon as Poppy arrives along with a sulky younger sister and her flatmate we find ourselves on familiar territory. He's hen-pecked, she’s the snobbish social climber. The one essential, the guided tour of their house is judged to perfection here, stripped away to almost nothing; the downstairs toilet, the patio, and the new table – ‘We only got it this week. Flat pack’. Enough said.

Poppy is apparently a primary school teacher; we even get to see her prepare for, and then take a class. But we don’t believe it. At one point she tells Scott that she’s 30 years old. We don’t believe that either. And that’s the point really, because Poppy isn’t an adult at all. The class we see her take involves the children painting a bird’s face on a paper bag, then all putting them over their heads and flapping their wings. Poppy joins in, and once she puts the bag on she’s indistinguishable from her pupils. She’s a young child, living in her own small world, constantly demanding to be the centre of attention. She has little perception of adult emotions, let alone the misery and danger that exists in the 'real' world.

Funniest moment in the film? There’s a lot to choose from, but I think I’d pick the flamenco dance classes Poppy and her friend go to. The instructor (played by Karina Fernandez) is a somewhat volatile Spanish woman who demands passion from her pupils. At one point, by way of example, she works herself up into a frenzy of overwrought emotion; that is until Poppy’s uncomprehending solicitude suddenly punctures the balloon.

This film is a tour-de-force, a sustained and brutal assault on the audience, almost unwatchable from the off. The cringe factor is so high it leaves you battered and bruised, utterly drained. Those who were drawn to this film through 'Vera Drake' will probably conclude that while the earlier film made some sort of case for legalised abortion, this one makes a far stronger case for strangulation at birth. Those foolish enough to demand ‘realism’ from drama will be utterly mystified. Those who asked Leigh to 'make a happy film for once' have had their bluff quite spectacularly called; I doubt they'll be asking again.

This is not the first time Leigh has made a film that is a difficult viewing experience, with a singularly bleak take on life. 'Happy-Go-Lucky' has serious things to say about the human condition, about the foolishness of our belief in the possibility of happiness. No-one’s happy in this film, although it takes a while to work that out.

A cinematic masterpiece. Recommended.

You may have made it through the film. You’ve certainly made it through my review. So I’m having a draw for an earlier Mike Leigh film on DVD. It’s Region 2, and I’ll cover postage to anywhere within that region’s map. The winner will get a choice; 'All or Nothing' or 'Topsy-Turvy'. To enter the draw just leave a comment here by the end of May, saying which film you’d prefer.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

The Archers podcast

It's not just Wisden and Rupert that have changed in recent years, the Archers has been the subject of tinkering and tampering as long as I can remember. Well, nearly as long as I can remember, I can certainly remember where I was the night Grace Archer burnt to death, and that was tampering on a grand scale.

To me the Archers is still meant to be on at a quarter-to-seven, have a contrived cliffhanger ending each night, and the Sunday omnibus edition should be introduced by Tom Forrest. John Tregorran and Carol Grey should still be teasing us with their romance, Lilian should be a horse-mad teenage tomboy, and farming advice should be heavy-handedly scripted in at every opportunity. But that's just nostalgia.

Nevertheless, the Archers does go through good and bad periods, and I find that I have to take a break from time to time. The great Ambridge mail van robbery was a classic example where the scriptwriters were low on ideas and the editor was in hot pursuit of ratings, and I just get weary for a while and find something else to fill those fifteen minutes. The last golden age for the Archers was when Liz Rigbey was the editor, for she knew how to balance the elements that make up the programme and most of all how to allow a story to run, such as Brian's affair with Caroline.

It was a tough time not that long ago; the Emma-Eddie-Will triangle did nothing for me at all. Victoria Wood did a very affectionate parody that ran for a week with the original cast and that was so much better I wished it could have continued. Now of course the Archers has moved firmly into the 21st Century with a daily podcast. I'm surprised but pleased to say I actually enjoy this. The most useful thing is the one line summary it shows each day, it tells you just enough to keep in touch without actually listening, and demands just enough imagination and plot cliché familiarity to fill in the gaps. Great fun, but sooner or later I'll be back at the wireless, I'm sure.

Just click on the image and check out the 'Description' column:

Friday, 25 April 2008

Rupert Bear

Over on the excellent Fora, the Political Umpire is currently finding himself fully occupied with this year's edition of Wisden, the cricket almanac so beloved of enthusiasts for the great game, as engrossing as an evenly balanced test match. The pleasure is not quite what it was though, as the publishers and the new editor conspire to improve on perfection; there's an urge to 'innovate', a hint of 'dumbing down', probably an unspoken agenda dictated by a fear that otherwise they will miss out on those whose only idea of cricket is a 20/20 match (and that's not cricket at all). So little by little they chip away at a venerable institution until it's venerable no more, and not too far beyond that it ceases to be an institution. They've shown signs over the last several years now that the distinctive yellow dust-jacket is past it's sell-by date (it's already badly disfigured) and sooner or later no doubt it will be given 'out', replaced by a glossy photograph of a well-proportioned young man waving a cricket bat in the air whilst wearing a luridly coloured shell suit.

My own particular pleasure is Rupert; it's appearance as Christmas approaches (so slightly earlier each time I fear) is one of the markers of my year. As soon as I see it on sale I have to buy it, create enough time and space to read it undisturbed end to end and fully absorb it. It takes me back to my childhood, where it would be in my Christmas stocking each year, and reading it on the top of my bed marked the beginning of that particular day. I no longer celebrate Christmas (certainly not to the point of giving myself a stocking!) but Rupert acts as a reassuring reminder that not everything in the world has changed. Indeed Rupert actually seems locked in some curious time warp in the early 1950s where children respected their parents, dressed sensibly, went to bed on time, and had few toys, but happily played outside with their friends without moaning about being 'bored'. If I had come to Rupert as an adult I would have been amused by the surreal element to it all, not so much the stories as the curious mingling of humans and animals, with the humans not nonplussed in the slightest by the fact that their doctor is a lion or that the policeman is a dog, they scarcely seem to notice. But I didn't discover Rupert as an adult, and I read Rupert now exactly as I did when I was young, no more noticing the absurdities than the characters do.

Unfortunately Rupert finds himself suffering the same fate as Wisden, indeed he has been suffering somewhat longer. The Daily Express inevitably found themselves in a difficult position when the elderly Alfred Bestall called it a day early in the 1970s (going off in something of a huff because Max Aitken had changed his artwork for the cover) but they weathered that storm and eventually found an artist who was comfortable with Rupert and his traditions. But by 1980 the desire to tinker had become overwhelming and they marked their first revamp with a change in the size of the book; swamped with complaints the Daily Express took the opportunity to blame the EU, who were supposedly insisting on standard metric book sizes. There was a distinct shift in the appearance of the cover, with simpler, bolder pictures in softer colours. The balance between story and activity within shifted, origami was nowhere to be found, and it simply didn't offer the pure unalloyed pleasure of old. Why, Mr Bear has abandoned his pipe and his predilection for plus-fours; is nothing sacred? There have been further changes in book size since then, but the Express have long since ceased to apologise, let alone blame Europe. There's part of me that dreads the book's arrival now, since each initial browse starts with a nervous check to see what remaining essential element had been lost, with the ensuing inevitable annoyance as my fears are confirmed once again.

You might say that Rupert is intended for children rather than adults wishing to return to their own childhood, and you'd be right. But the Express has taken to publishing a facsimile of a Bestall era Rupert each year, aimed entirely at adult collectors. The children I give Rupert to each Christmas get both, and they consistently prefer the earlier volume. So Rupert has changed, but not for the better.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Mother Country

On the basis of only two novels, 'Housekeeping' and 'Gilead', there are serious critics who have suggested Marilynne Robinson may be our greatest living female novelist. Both are very powerful books that demand to be read. But she is also an essayist, and in 1989 published 'Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution', in which she explores the moralities surrounding the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant.

Following the success of 'Housekeeping' at the start of the 1980s, Ms. Robinson took a sabbatical at Canterbury; it was while there that she first became aware of the existence of Sellafield. She was amazed that the world's largest source of radioactive pollution (as well as weapons-grade plutonium) was little known outside Britain, and that the British were by and large so willing to accept it's existence without protest. This essay is driven by the anger of that discovery, and offers an analysis not only of the global politics that tolerate Sellafield (because it solves the immediate problems of nuclear waste disposal for the rest of the world), but more particularly the passivity of the population here, which she regards as (unknowingly) oppressed by our welfare state, a continuation as she sees it of the Poor Law. She castigates our government for their willingness to risk human survival itself for no more than short-term economic gain.

It took a time to adjust to the fact that in the 'us and them' aspect to the presentation of her arguments, I am part of the 'them'. It is not spelt out exactly when she was over here, but I imagine from the image of Britain that she offers that it was around 1983-84; Thatcher's bare-faced incitement of personal greed has not yet replaced her destruction of so much of our established industry. And much has changed in the world (and in Britain) in the nineteen years since this book was published. Her suggestion that US military support of Europe is a one-sided bargain, with the US entirely the loser, is (sadly) ironically redundant; her failure to anticipate the changed realities of a global economy lessen some of her arguments. But that is no reason to ignore this book.

Although much has changed in the last twenty years, there's much that hasn't. Britain remains the world's dustbin for toxic waste of all descriptions, and politicians who in other regards are keen to declare their environmental credentials are united in silence. There has been more research into the link between radioactivity and childhood leukaemia in that period, and increasing sophistry from scientists seeking to deny the link between Sellafield and the leukaemia hotspot that surrounds it - one child in sixty is a victim in the nearest village. The British remain collectively tolerant, if anything more so than twenty years ago. Abroad, there is little or no collective awareness, and no will to interfere.

If you have read either of Ms Robinson's novels, you will surely have responded to the measured grace with which she approaches humanity; here in contrast she exposes harder emotions and invites the reader to share her anger. She does though write with the same precision and care, and regardless of which side of the argument you support, this book deserves to sit alongside her novels on your bookshelf.

** By way of a postscript, perhaps I should summarise the current and no doubt well researched scientific thinking on the causes of childhood leukaemia. It runs like this: The construction of nuclear facilities are the largest construction projects by far in the areas they are sited. As a result, very substantial numbers of construction workers spend time in the vicinity of those projects. Since astonishing increases in leukaemia rates soon follow, it must mean that childhood leukaemia is apparently some form of (little understood) infectious disorder, carried into the area by the construction workers. This self-serving logic conveniently means that exposure to radioactivity, although acknowledged as a major cause of childhood leukaemia, plays no part whatever when it comes to the hotspots around nuclear facilities. I'm tempted to say that you couldn't make it up, but scientists somewhere obviously have.

'Mother Country' is no longer in print. It is still possible to get paperback copies from the US at sensible prices via Amazon UK.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Easter and Sacred Hymns

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a mystic from the first half of the last century, wrote a considerable body of music, much in collaboration with the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, who was responsible for the piano arrangements for a series of Gurdjieff's hymns.

I have had a recording of these performed by the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett for Manfred Eicher's idiosyncratic ECM label for the last 20 years now, and it has always been a favourite. Like most of my records though, it sits unplayed for long periods, suddenly finding itself back at the front of the queue and on it's way back to my turntable. I'm always surprised by how peaceful and meditative this music is. When I first heard it I thought 'Satie' but each time I hear it again I wonder how I could have ever made that comparison. But the music is certainly spare, with silence almost as significant as the piano, and Jarrett's performances, as so often, are impeccably well judged. Mostly it is the sense of timing that lends this curious and rather child-like music the spiritual quality so manifest in this recording.

I've had this LP out over the past week or so, the pleasure of listening renewed as always. I have to admit that I don't often look at the track listings for such albums, finding they come between me and my own responses to what I'm hearing, but looking carefully (possibly for the first time) at the back cover I found that in fact it was Easter music. Even for an atheist like myself, it did seem singularly apt.

It's a little known record, but thanks to Eicher's commitment to artistry rather than commerce 'Sacred Hymns of G.I. Gurdjieff' remains in the catalogue and is well worth seeking out.

Ramsey, 1995

A couple of days ago Babooshka, a photographer from the Isle of Man, visited my politics blog. She posts some wonderful photos of the I.O.M. on her own blogs and I thought I'd put up a few of my own. They were taken in February 1995 (with a lovely little Rollei 35) when I stayed on the island helping a friend renovate an old house. The quality isn't too spectacular here as I scanned them off old prints, but I like to think that they're still reasonably atmospheric.

Walking along Ramsey beach, early evening. Susie chases a stone, something she never seemed to tire of. We had the beach entirely to ourselves, and I took a short sequence of photos here.

Back through the harbour; the tide is right out. What caught my eye about this boat is the way much of the lower rigging inexplicably disappears into the cloud leaving the impression of a stranded ghost ship.

Finally, back to town and a rather obvious view of the very photogenic swing bridge.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Down in Dublin

If you've already discovered Michael Hurley (a.k.a. Doc Snock), you'll have this by now. But if you haven't?

Michael Hurley has been recording (and performing) for over 40 years. He's an American singer-songwriter who has carved out a very distinctive niche with material that is difficult to pigeonhole; part folk, part blues, part country, and part utterly unique. His singing style is as leisurely as most of his songs, with a voice and occasional yodel that has certainly never been troubled by a voice coach; it can take a few minutes to acclimatise. He plays guitar, banjo, fiddle, piano, and does a good impression of a trumpet on occasions (first-timers are sometimes fooled!). More often than not he has backing from a small group, mainly friends. Some of his records are home-made, and the studio recordings have a refreshing absence of gloss. He's never been one for the concert hall, you're most likely to catch him live in a pub or similar small venue.

The first thing you notice with any of these albums is the artwork; Hurley draws and paints his own in a highly stylised semi-naïve way, often as comic strip. The content is utterly surreal, featuring a pair of itinerant musician werewolves called Jocko and Boone whose main interests in life are women with dresses as loose as their morals, red wine, driving around, marijuana, and latterly a fondness for boats; they're mellowing slightly with age. Then there's Kornbred Briarpatch, a mutant 'hornduck', who spends most of his time in bars drinking beer or whiskey, excess of which induces melancholy followed by a desire to rock-and-roll. The sleeve for this disc shows Jocko and Boone arriving at a gig; inside there's one of Hurley's trademark comic strips covering the gig itself; Kornbred and the usual cast are there. It's sad that not all Hurley's work has made it to vinyl as a lot of detail gets lost in small CD booklets although this one does manage pretty well.

The songs themselves often seem lightweight, sometimes absurd nonsense songs, and sometimes straightforward expression of emotions; most are marked by a very cheerful demeanour even when the subject matter is darker. They often reference the characters from the cartoons who themselves express various elements of Hurley's persona. In looking to entertain he never falls into the trap of taking himself too seriously. But appearances can be deceptive, and there is a depth to this work that is cumulative, a voice that encourages the listener to recognise the absurdity of the human condition at the same time as enjoying it, all the while taking life at a slightly slower pace

This record was recorded in Dublin during a 2003 European tour (Hurley has a considerable following over here) at the behest of Brendan Foreman, who produces the 'Blue Navigator', an occasional magazine centred round Hurley and his circle. The Rough Deal String Band provide sympathetic backing along with Thurstan Binns and regular accomplice Dave Reisch (whose bass is satisfyingly forward in the mix). It has a definite Irish flavour, as do some of Hurley's earlier recordings.

Hurley often revisits older songs and his reworking of 'The Slurf Song' is fabulous; if you know the track from it's earlier incarnation on 'Have Moicy!' you'll find this irresistible with it's four extra verses (popcorn, beer, oysters and ennui should you want to know). 'Whiskey Willie' is also given a great second run. But the new material matches these from the off with 'Goners'. Then there's the standards like 'Have I Told You Lately' and 'Pancho and Lefty' which take on new life here.

Hurley's work has always had it's strongest appeal among aging hippies; there is a slight but very pleasurable whiff of marijuana attached to the gentle laidback humour. But he deserves a wider audience, and 'Down in Dublin' is the perfect place to start.

As a taster for this album, I've put up the first half of the opening track 'Goners' as a download. You can't exactly say it's typical of his work but only because there's a surprisingly wide variety in his material, but I hope it tempts you.

You can (and should) get Down in Dublin directly from Blue Navigator for £10.50 (+£2.00 postage); Brendan takes PayPal or cheques. Otherwise you can find it on Amazon. Much of the earlier work is no longer available commercially but you can get that directly from the man himself; just visit his website.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Big Wheel

The Attractions had disbanded (Elvis Costello had moved on musically) before Bruce Thomas, their bass player, wrote this memoir, mainly reflecting life on the road. He's an intelligent writer (no ghost writer needed here) with a wry sense of humour, and the book meanders back and forth with a string of anecdotes that will as often as not bring a smile to your face. Sadly it didn't bring a smile to EC's face though (maybe the revelation that Elvis had to go out to the toilet 6 times each night before going on stage had something to do with it), so when Warner Brother records forced an Attractions reunion on him the atmosphere was more than strained. But that lies beyond the timespan of this book which, although somewhat slight, makes for a very good read.

I wish I could say the same for 'Papa John', another rock memoir I read recently. Lots of anecdotes here too, but every one of them involves drugs and John Phillips comes over as the most dislikeable person. He does use a ghost writer which is a shame, because the lyrics to his songs with the Mamas and Papas showed that he was a very articulate man, and this book could not have been any worse than this depressing 'autobiography'. John Phillips is dead now, and 'Papa John' is thankfully out of print. 'The Big Wheel' is out of print too, but it's not too difficult to find a copy. Best tale in it? For me it would have to be the one where he accompanies an Irishman to collect a (very large) stock of secondhand Wellington boots in his (pre-fame) group's ageing van.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

A day in the darkroom

As wonderful as digital photography is, I don't think that there is any substitute for silver halide and celluloid when it comes to black & white photography, particularly when you do your own developing and printing. I've been out and about shooting film the last few mornings and I've spent most of today in my 'darkroom' (a blacked-out bathroom actually) processing the film and making prints. And I'm pleased with the results.

Nothing ever quite takes away the thrill as you see the image appear on the paper in front of your eyes; it still seems like magic. So why the picture of the camera? Well, I've had it for 35 years now - it's a very early (non-motordrive) OM, and it's never let me down; a reminder of just how wonderful a camera made from little other than metal and glass can be. The dictum that form follows function is ably illustrated by the mechanical SLR, particularly with the wonderfully brutish, indestructible Nikon F, but Olympus produced a design masterpiece of their own with the OM-1, a camera which in size and ease of use matched the Leica rangefinder; and which achieved a glorious and perfectly balanced aesthetic in it's design that was a satisfying counterbalance to that of the Nikon.

And most of all my OM-1 (no. 167667) is here because it's a friend; trusty and reliable. Mr Maitani, thank you.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

Over the past few years there have been a spate of books recounting deeply unhappy childhoods with parents who are abusive beyond belief. They are so popular that when I was in a booksellers recently I saw that they had an entire section devoted to them. I can't remember what the section was called, but it was something along the lines of 'Damaged Childhoods', somewhat short on subtlety I remember thinking.

But what really disappointed me was to see that they had included Lorna Sage's wonderful memoir of her upbringing among them. Because Lorna's book is affectionate and very very funny, despite that the marriage of the grandparents who brought her up was dysfunctional in the extreme. But she is able to offer an exceptionally sharp analysis of the way that the bitter conflict between her grandparents impacted on the subsequent generations, as well as acute observation of the individual traits that distinguished each family member who she brings entirely to life.

I'm of a similar age to Lorna, and remember all too well the sombre grey postwar austerity that consumed Britain, so I may be prejudiced in giving it my wholehearted recommendation. And I lived just round the corner from Lorna for several years, as well as sitting in on her lectures at our local university, so I can see her in my mind whenever I read her.

The book is well illustrated with family photos inserted at the appropriate points in the narrative. You find yourself surprised to see how normal everyone looks after you've been guided in such detail through their idiosyncrasies. In an odd way this book reminded me of Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals', although it is far darker in the lives it explores.

The book was originally published (by 4th Estate) in 2000. And sadly within a year Lorna had died of emphysema, aged just 57.

The Guardian published an article by Lorna which will give the curious a small flavour of her writing. Seek it out.

Friday, 25 January 2008

The Oratory of All Souls, Burghclere

I visited the Sandham Memorial Chapel (as it's now known) twice last year, each time in the company of people who haven't been there before. And, as always, enjoyed the sheer sense of amazement on entering, struck by the sheer scale of Stanley Spencer's work.

It is all the more surprising for it's location in the small Hampshire village of Burghclere, on the edge of what was once the railway line, and looking out towards Watership Down (and yes, there are lots of rabbits!)

Stanley Spencer was a young man, still on active service, when he first conceived the project intended to bring him to terms with his experiences in what was then known as 'The Great War'. He wanted a chapel modelled on Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua, and eventually Jack and Mary Behrend agreed to commission the work. Lionel Pearson was the architect, although he didn't find the project satisfying; Spencer had very clear instructions for the chapel itself, and Pearson found himself left only to ensure that it was built in the local vernacular.

Inside, the three main walls are covered with Spencer's paintings; around half the scenes are set at Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol where Spencer was a medical orderly; and then pictures covering his time with the medical corps, and finally as an infantryman, in Macedonia. The pictures do not emphasise the horror of war, neither do they celebrate it. But they do speak of shared humanity, and many of the pictures actually seem quite homely. But Spencer was a profoundly religious man, and the end wall has one single work - 'The Resurrection of the Soldiers', wich has the dead soldiers climbing out of their graves and carrying the white crosses that had marked them to Christ. And many soldiers in the paintings on either side are also looking towards Christ with the hope of the resurrection. It is astonishingly moving, regardless of whether you share Spencer's religious convictions.

The chapels has had extensive restoration over the past couple of years, and the paintings have all been cleaned with spectacular results. What I had taken to be an artistic choice to paint in a muddy brown proved not to be the case at all, instead there are wonderful vibrant colours.

For me, only one other work matches it as an artistic achievement in the 20th century: Anthony Caro's 'The Last Judgement', but that's for another day.

The chapel has been in the care of the National Trust for the last forty years and they have proved good custodians. I should say thank you to Amanda Forsyth, the chapel administrator, who kindly arranged for us to visit when the chapel was otherwise closed; if only the weather had been as kind.