Thursday, 31 December 2015

national gallery

In the last two days we spent time in the National Gallery twice, once killing time and the second passing through. It's good to be able to visit these tremendous things in central London so casually. A world-famous image round every corner; we spent most time looking at The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (here it is), which may be my favourite painting in there (there is a small painting of a moated castle in a winter landscape (I think this may be it) which I like a lot but haven't seen for a long time - it used to be in the downstairs room at the back which is only open occasionally).

pitch perfect 2

Last night we watched Pitch Perfect 2 on DVD, which Maisie had got for her Christmas. As I had anticipated, it wasn't very good; like a lot of comedy sequels, they broadly replicated the plot structure, which you can get away with, but with fewer jokes, most of which were similar to jokes in the first film, which you can't. The only real funny bits were the commentary team, whose bits really emphasised how lacking in humour the rest of of the film was. An over-reliance on the belief that crudity, especially from women, is inherently funny.

five little pigs; black coffee

Over the Christmas holidays I read two Agatha Christies, Five Little Pigs and Black Coffee, the latter being a novelisation of her first play by Charles Osborne.

The former, unusually, was too obvious in solution (hard to explain without giving it away, but the passivity at trial clearly points to one thing, which to a seasoned reader of crime fiction then points to something else) - which isn't necessarily a big deal, and I don't tend to make much effort to try to work out whodunnit in general, but there was little else to the story but that.

The intro to Black Coffee indicates that the play had initially been turned down for production, before being successfully produced. It is fairly insubstantial - it would be worthy of a short story, really, rather than a full novel, I think. One for the completists (as, I guess, would probably be all the plays, most of which haven't been novelised).

the best short stories of fredric brown

Somewhere in September I finished The Best Short Stories of Fredric Brown, an SF collection I started on holiday in Lewis. Further to the post on the two SF short story collections I did finish on holiday, his writings have not endured as the publisher and editor thought they would and deserved to. The stories were fine, but a bit disappointing, given the build up on blurb and intro. It was a collection which drew together two US collections, Space On My Hands (1953) and Nightmares And Geezenstacks (1961). It didn't make me want to seek out more of his writing.

lady killer

On Saturday 28 February I finished Lady Killer by Ed McBain. I like procedural detective novels, which this was, and it was quite good, though the plot wasn't great. He wrote a lot of them, and while this wouldn't put me off reading more, it didn't make me want to seek them out particularly. I realise that once you get beyond Chandler/Hammett/Stout in chronology, I'm not that keen on crime novels set in America.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

an advent music night

On Friday at church we had an Advent Music Night. It was an unusual and really very good variation on the 'lessons and carols' model, with a set of six readings interspersed with five pieces played on the harp by our Mary Reid. The pieces weren't Christian/seasonal, but were each linked with the preceding passage primarily in how they sounded ('chosen carefully to reflect the nature of the Bible readings' - from the notes, which were excellent, written by Mary). Mary is an excellent harpist, and the pieces (by Hindemith, Kikta, Rameau, Attahir and Faure) were varied and interesting, without a hint of cliche.

lisbon lions

On Friday I finished Lisbon Lions by Andy Dougan, an account of Celtic's European-Cup-winning season. It was a straightforward account, with obviously a lot of recourse to cuttings, and a few interviews. An odd final chapter about the travails and state of Celtic subsequently - it was published in 1997. Football was a very different industry at that time. Noteworthy how local the team were, all born within thirty miles of Celtic Park it's said. Jock Stein comes out as a less admirable figure than I'd always been given to believe. And of course the most notable thing for me is that on the day I was born Celtic drew their semi-final second leg 0-0 away at Dukla Prague, getting them into the final.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

the incredulity of father brown

On Saturday 5 December I finished reading The Incredulity of Father Brown by GK Chesterton. I picked it up (a green Penguin edition from 1970; it's the third collection of Father Brown stories, published 1926) a couple of weeks before secondhand in the Kennington Bookshop, opposite the old Interserve office on Kennington Road, which since I last went past had changed from a new book shop to a cafe with secondhand books on the shelves around the side, which I guess could work pretty well as a combined income stream. I guess it had happened quite recently, as the signage/branding wasn't very clear; I nearly didn't go in because I thought it was just a cafe. Ah, I see from this review that it's Vanilla Black Coffee & Books - and from which I see that there's a downstairs, which I didn't notice at all.

Anyway, the book. As I mentioned previously, I was going back to Father Brown after reading and enjoying Orthodoxy, though I hadn't enjoyed Father Brown stories I'd read long ago. The secret, I see, is not to read them as detective stories, but as reflections on aspects of human morality and spirituality. I enjoyed them a good deal better at that level. I recognised the things I didn't like from before as primarily Father Brown's ridiculously miraculous crime-solving skills, and plots which often strayed too far into the far-fetched and fanciful. But they were well-written, and I'll read more, now that I understand how I should read them. (I'm not claiming that's how everyone else should read them.)

First line: There was a brief period during which Father Brown enjoyed, or rather did not enjoy, something like fame.
(Last line deliberately omitted.)

The cover is one of those which looks like a TV tie-in (which in general I deplore), but in fact is a specially-taken photo, which in some ways makes it worse. This is not an edition which will be cherished for its design, I feel, but the state of the book suggests it has journeyed through the hands of a number of readers (and I have launched it back onto that journey via charity shop). The fact that it's a 'green Penguin' only shown on the front by the penguin's background (the spine, as you can just about see, is dressed appropriately).

Later PS: in response to my posting of a link to this on Facebook, Danica said this: 'I think I also read the Father Brown stories more for certain depictions of atmosphere (God of the Gongs) or character (the American journalist in The Strange Crime of John Boulnois, for example) than for detective plot itself. Nice that you love them a little more than before!'

the celts at the british museum

On Wednesday 9 December, on a day off, I went to the Celts: Art & Identity exhibition at the British Museum.

The most impressive thing was the intricacy, artistry and preservation of artefacts over two thousand years old in some cases. The heaps of stuff from hoards were impressive too.

The most striking thing was how many of the artefacts were from London. (I also liked the number which were indicated as having an unknown find location, which makes me think they've just been rattling around unlabelled in the British Museum storerooms for decades.)

The most interesting thing was that the basic thesis of the exhibition seemed to be that the Celts never existed, essentially. In the first phase - roughly from prehistory to the departure of the Romans from Britain - 'the Celts' were a group identified by the Greeks and Romans as being beyond their regions of control in various areas to the north, east and west; the only identifier which we seem to know these groups having in common is their art. In the second phase, 'the Celts' are various groups beyond the regions of control of Anglo-Saxon Britain, defined together by their related languages (in areas not previously identified as Celtic, and defined thus much later). In the third phase, the Celtic Renaissance from the 18th century onwards creates a literary and political 'Celtic world' which is largely mythical. Two phases of being 'savage other', then a phase of 'idealised other'.

One thing I did find odd was that in the panel on the modern renaissance of Celtic spirituality they did not mention the significant resurgence of interest in Celtic Christian spirituality, but instead took as the example the resurgence of druidism, which seems largely constructed and frivolous, of little more significance than people putting Jedi as their religion in the census.

They talked about - and demonstrated by artefacts - how the Celts absorbed other artistic influences into their art, like Roman and Viking. Which did make you think that perhaps in that first phase all the groups literally had in common was the art, learnt/absorbed from one another, and were linked in no other real way.

And of course the labels are full of 'may', 'perhaps', 'probably' and flat-out assertions that make you think, 'Really?'

I did wonder how the 'Celts never existed' approach was playing in non-England UK ('typical English idea'), but on the way out saw that one of the co-curators was from the National Museums Scotland.

Reviews from the first Google search page. They are well worth reading, actually, for a thoughtful range of accounts and perspectives of the objects and the text (I didn't link to the Daily Mail one which, peculiarly, just wrote about all the weapons). Telegraph. Guardian. Guardian again ('a great exhibition that achieves the opposite of what it intends. In wall texts and a richly detailed catalogue it sets out a sceptical approach to the ancient peoples of north-western Europe. Celts, we’re told, never called themselves Celts and modern constructions of a genetic and eternal Celtic identity – promoted by Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists – are as insubstantial as mist on a loch. ... In the end I just ignored the texts and succumbed to the art. The Celts may never have existed, but their art is amazing. ... I love this exhibition even though I am unconvinced by its thesis.'). Standard. FT (thinks the final 'revival' section is the strongest, unlike the previous reviews). London Review of Books ('A single ‘Celtic civilisation’ in a united Iron Age Europe never happened, and those tribes never thought of themselves as ‘Celts’. Their unity existed only in the minds of outsiders, Greeks and Romans who ‘othered’ them all together as un-Mediterranean. ... expressions like ‘Celtic nations’ and ‘Celtic Fringe’ are really English statements about England. Like Romans and Greeks, the English have had to invent a collective Other in order to recognise themselves. The truth is that Ireland and Scotland have long ceased to feel ‘peripheral’ to an imperial ‘core’. The main thing that those Atlantic nations and communities have in common is not Celticity. It’s their experience of English expansion.'). Spectator. Londonist. A couple of the reviews point up the lack of a written language in these groups, which contributes to their mystery.

And my mother reminded me that when she studied Celtic at Aberdeen University it was pronounced like the football team, 'Seltic'. By the time I was there it was 'Keltic', as it is now (and probably was then) everywhere.

a three-pipe problem

On Monday 14 October 2013 I finished Julian Symons' A Three-Pipe Problem, an interesting Holmes pastiche in that it features an actor famous for playing Holmes who thinks he can solve a crime as Homes did. It was interesting, but implausible; okay, but didn't make me want to seek out any more by Julian Symons. It was clear to me fairly early on who the criminal was, but I don't generally expend much energy trying to work out 'who done it', and it doesn't hamper my enjoyment if I do work it out if it's well-written. This is quite a good article/review, on the Tipping My Fedora blog.

james hogg - the growth of a writer

On Monday 14 December I finished James Hogg - The Growth of a Writer, by David Groves. It's been on my list of 'Current reading on 1/1/..' in my diaries since 2003, the first year I made that list, so I'm not sure how long it was on the list before then. I actually restarted it a couple of years ago, as I hadn't got very far. Then last week I was realising how many more books I've started this year that will appear on the 1/1/16 list, and I had a look to see if there were any that I might be able to finish this month, and there it was.

It didn't actually take long to finish it - it's not that long. It's a not very good academic trot through James Hogg's writing career, with a couple of academic theories which aren't that engaging.

I borrowed it off a friend, who I'm not in touch with any more, but I'm not worried about getting it back to him, because he only bought it because he thought James Hogg was an old minister/theologian, tricked by the title of his most famous book.

I enjoyed The Private Memoirs & Confessions of a Justified Sinner a lot when I read it years ago. I'd like to read it again (despite David Groves' book), to see if I still think it's as misjudged as I thought it was then - it's generally perceived as an anti-Christian novel, but it seemed to me an anti-heresy novel; I don't think Christians who are familiar with the theological issues behind it would find it anti-Christian, but would agree with it (including the reality of the devil and evil, which again I haven't seen taken that seriously in things about it). I also found it very modern in structure. I was pleased to see it recently in a list of greatest British books compiled from non-British critics' views. But so many other things to read...

Friday, 4 December 2015

morris folk club

At the November Morris Folk Club I sang Thomas o' Winesbury, which I first heard in Iochdar School (when we were visiting Ryno and Mary many years ago) at a concert by Mr McFall's Chamber (an offshoot from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra), featuring Dave Brady (their one-armed roadie/driver who - I discovered some years later on reading his obituary in the Guardian - had been a folk singer of some renown). I learnt it from the CD I bought on the night. The MMC version is great.

It was a healthy sign for the folk club that there were sufficient people performing that we only did one song each (though part of that was small groups from the choir previewing their songs for the choir concert the following Saturday).

sherlock holmes (guy ritchie version)

On Saturday 31 October we all watched on DVD the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. We enjoyed it, but it was an odd film, which made our detecting duo more action hero types than usual, though the characterisation was quite interesting. I took nothing from it, and was prompted to no further thought afterwards.