Saturday, 30 January 2016

star wars: the force awakens

On Tuesday 29 December Maisie and I went with the Gilmours to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the Odeon Leicester Square. We enjoyed it fairly well.

she is not invisible

On Thursday 28 January I finished reading She Is Not Invisible, by Marcus Sedgwick. It was a library book of Maisie's which she enjoyed and told me I should read. I wasn't that keen on it.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

three political diaries

I've been reading Alastair Campbell's diaries - The Blair Years - for some time now, gradually, which I'm enjoying very much. It runs from July 1994, when he was offered the job as Tony Blair's press secretary, to August 2003, when he resigned.

A couple of years ago I picked up Chris Mullin's highly-regarded diaries, A View From The Foothills, which runs from July 1999, when he first becomes a junior minister under Blair, to May 2005, when he stops being one.

rule britannia

On 28 May last year I finished Rule Britannia by Daphne du Maurier, which was okay.

animal farm

This evening we watched the 1954 Halas/Batchelor animated version of Animal Farm, which was pretty good. It's only about 70 minutes long, and I'd seen at least bits of it long ago when they used to have school programmes on the BBC in the daytime - I have a memory, possibly imagined, of seeing a bit of it at my granny's house - possibly interspersed with documentary bits explaining the allegory, though I'm not sure if I knew it was an allegory the first time I saw it. Anyway, it is a beautifully constructed allegory. (Maisie's doing it in English at the moment.)

Friday, 22 January 2016

no mercy

On Thursday 21 January I finished No Mercy, David Buckley's 1997 biography of The Stranglers, which had been on my current reading shelf for a long time (I see I started it in 2009). It was an odd combination of detailed and vague.

the princess diaries

On Wednesday and Thursday Maisie and I watched The Princess Diaries. Having seen Anne Hathaway recently in Ella Enchanted, I recorded it last Sunday as it was on, and I'd heard it was fairly good. It was indeed pretty good; I had thought it might have been too late for us, more primary than secondary, but it wasn't, and I enjoyed it. Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews were good, and also Hector Elizondo, who was Julie's head of security and who was a very familiar face.

Monday, 18 January 2016

a pinch of snuff; sexism

Today I finished A Pinch Of Snuff, the fifth Dalziel and Pascoe novel by Reginald Hill. It was fine, perhaps better than some of the others I've read, but I haven't really warmed to the detective duo or the writing style, and there were some pretty stretching-it coincidences. I got a set of the first six very cheap from The Book People, and it's fair to say that I probably wouldn't have persisted this far if I didn't actually have them. I'll read the remaining one I have, but no more. I'm sure I read somewhere that his novels featured puzzles and cryptic things, but there has been no evidence of that; perhaps that comes later, but I won't be there to read them.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

peter pan goes wrong

On Friday 8 January I got day seats in the morning and we all went in the evening to see Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue. We had seats in two adjoining grand circle boxes.

how I escaped my certain fate

On Sunday 10th January I finished Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate, a partial autobiography - primarily about his professional life, primarily from 2001 to 2008 - constructed around the transcripts of three stand-up shows, transcripts which were heavily footnoted with detailed background and explanation. It was a fascinating insight, very well written, and so much more interesting than just reading, or even seeing, the stand-up shows in question.

lumiere london

On Friday evening we went, with Margaret, to see the Lumiere light festival - light-based art installations in various sections of central London, plus up in the new pedestrian area north of King's Cross. We decided to go to King's Cross, and found it to be really busy and also somewhat disappointing. Most of the things were quite small; the biggest thing was an animation projected onto the front of a large building, which if you saw it on TV or Youtube would not have detained you for more than 30 seconds before you turned it off.

I know other people who went and were really impressed, but perhaps they all went to the central London sections. Oh well, at least I visited an area of London I hadn't been to before, not since the redevelopment at least.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

david bowie doing heroes on top of the pops

I first saw this a couple of years ago - David Bowie doing Heroes on Top of the Pops, from the days when they were supposed to re-record the song for the show, because of MU rules, and which to my ears clearly happened here, and the vocals seem to be live too. I think I might even prefer this to the 'proper' version; I don't know if this version was ever released - I don't suppose so.

the sultan's tigers

On Monday 4 May 2015 I finished The Sultan's Tigers by Josh Lacey - this was the only book I think we managed to read together in our intergenerational book club (we borrowed two copies from the library), which was a shame, since I liked the idea, and I'd even been given a hand-drawn membership card.

It wasn't chosen by me, and I didn't like it at all. It was an adventure story, in which the narrator was the boy, away with his dodgy uncle. It wasn't that well-written, the story as a whole was implausible, but worst of all was that the boy and the uncle were really rather unpleasant (not least to/about the boy's parents) - one kept thinking that there would be some moment or process of change or realisation or revealing that they weren't really so bad, but there never was.

My dislike of the book was somewhat pooh-poohed, but I notice that I'm pretty sure none of his other books have been bought or borrowed.


On Friday 23 October - a week after I finished Paper Towns - I finished Wonder by RJ Palacio. I read it because Maisie had read it twice, and bought it after having read it, so obviously liked it pretty well. Jan at church, coincidentally, had recommended it to Bethan for Maisie, though after Maisie had already read it. I liked it too.

It did have a significant problem for me, which was that the sequence of child narrators did not sound like their age at all, but very mature; the nature of the book required that they be multiple first-person narrators, but they sounded quite similar, and quite adult. Having suspended that disbelief, however, it was otherwise well-written and interesting.

paper towns

Some time later last year I read (finishing on Saturday 17 October) Paper Towns by John Green. In fact, this may have been the one I read at the same time as Maisie. I thought it was okay; a more traditional US high school novel, but the ending was very anticlimactic.

Much of the book is the quest for the missing, mysterious idealised friend, but when she is found it and she are downbeat and unremarkable, and it just tails off. This would work fine if on the journey through the book you were being given the sense that the journey was more important than the destination, especially in the way the narrator's friendships with the others he involves develop, and in the way the narrator might be developing as a person and outgrowing his need for this rather one-sided relationship - but you weren't. So when you got to the ending you felt 'is that it?', and that you should have been paying more attention to the journey, but not enough was being made of the journey to make you do that - and nor is there even a moment of realisation by anyone in the book at the end that they should have been doing that (which you might have got away with, but I don't think you'd have earned the right to do so).

the fault in our stars; reading choices

Further to yesterday's post, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green was probably the first book I read for vetting purposes. (I finished it on Monday 18 May last year.) Maisie was very keen to read it, I'm not sure why (perhaps because classmates had read it, or because there was a lot of publicity about the film). Knowing the subject matter, and that it was aimed at older children than her, I wanted to read it, if not before her, then at the same time as her. I think she started it first, and I overtook her.

On the one hand, knowing there was a teen romance at the heart of it, I was wondering how much sexuality there would be in it, keen to avoid too much early over-exposure. On the other hand, knowing that terminal illness in children was also at the heart of it, I wanted to be ready to talk over any matters arising if called upon to do so - as with, of course, sexuality, or any other issues covered in anything she is reading. The reality, of course, is that in this case and pretty much ever other case of things we read or watch, there are no matters arising or issues covered which dad is going to be talked to about. (Subsequently I was brought another book, I can't remember if in a library or a bookshop, for borrowing/purchase approval, which was co-written by John Green, and although it was not, I don't think, in any way explicit, it seemed to be largely *about* sexuality; I declined approval, with explanation (explanation is of course important), and didn't get resistance.)

I am also mindful of what I myself was reading at that age - that is, into adult fiction rather than what is now the enormous 'young adult' market. I don't really remember reading any books aimed at 'teenagers' - I went direct from children's books to adult books, as many people did. On the other hand, the kind of adult books I read had a very different moral landscape from today's young adult fiction, and in some cases the latter has more sex and swearing, and deals with more, heavier, real-life issues. I have no desire - and there would be no point in trying, even if I did - to shield her from the realities of the modern world in the pages of books; I want her, as I did, to learn about things and people in the world, past and present, through books, and to learn from them too, and not to necessarily accept that the things are right, or the author or narrator's view of things was right; you can learn about, understand, empathise, without having to agree, accept, change. (To take just one unremarkable example, I've spent my life reading books and watching things on screens in which characters swear, without ever being moved to think that that's what I should do too. Some people avoid things involving swearing, and I understand that approach too; but I've never felt the need to take it myself, and I wouldn't impose it on someone else, even someone who I really don't want to grow up swearing.)

Anyway, I thought The Fault In Our Stars was pretty good. (Yes, that's your lot.) Bethan and Maisie have since watched the film also.

the year of the rat

On Wednesday 13 January I finished The Year Of The Rat, by Clare Furniss, which I enjoyed a lot.

A number of the best books I've read in the last couple of years have been the daughter's books, now that she's moving firmly into reading books for teenagers - books I was either reading in advance to vet (which hasn't been very often; generally a skim through at the library or bookshop weeds out ones which I've not been happy with yet, and the 'not yet' has usually been received with good grace), at the same time as, or after. I don't tend to bother with the adventure/thriller ones, like the Alex Ryder and Cherub series, it's the ones about real characters and real world issues I tend to look at.

I was never keen on the Jacqueline Wilson books, because they always seemed very agenda-driven and issue-driven (a bit like Agatha Christie, covering all the permutations but in what felt like a much more mechanical, ideological, checklisty way), and from what I saw of them the writing didn't appeal to me. People mock the old children's fiction for always having happy little nuclear families, in a way which isn't very far from mocking happy little nuclear families, and while I'm all for representations of all kinds of family units in fiction, the disproportionate absence of any families which looked like ours is striking.

The Year Of The Rat could have been such an 'issue' book - teenager deals badly with death of mum in childbirth - but wasn't. It was very much a proper novel, very well written. The only thing that didn't ring true for me was that it seems to have occurred to no one that the teenager will have issues about how she feels about the newborn half-sibling who was responsible for the death of her mother and now takes up so much of her stepfather's time - but that seems to have been necessary for the unfolding of the plot, although I'm sure it could have been better managed; the self-absorption itself is plausible. It's good on how the way things are not as black and white as she sees them; I also liked that there are no actual baddies, although she thinks there are at various stages (but you can see that she is an unreliable narrator). The device of having a ghostly mother appearing for conversations I thought unusual, but wisely left unexplained and uninvestigated, and the fact that the 'ghost' gives her no information or insight which couldn't have come from her own mind leaves it very much open that this is her own imagining. I thought the various issues and relationships in the book were well handled; I had wondered if the death of the mother was a bit too intense a subject matter, but the younger generation was unfazed and took it in her stride.

This was I think Clare Furniss's first book, and I hope she can keep it up (reading a bit just now about her next book, which is out soon, it looks like it covers another couple of issues, and I'm hoping that the single pregnant teenager will be allowed to have her baby...).

Friday, 15 January 2016


On Monday 11 January I finished Curtain by Agatha Christie. Written during the war, possibly as some income for her family in case she was killed in the war, but deliberately not published till the end of her life, as it was Poirot's last case. Happily Christie never troubled herself with issues of chronology in relation to Marple and Poirot, who both start out very old then carry on, without aging, for decades, so it doesn't bear chronological analysis but that doesn't matter. In fact this one is notable because Poirot has definitely aged, knowing that this is to be the last one. (I wonder if Sleeping Murder, the last Miss Marple, is similar; I've read it, actually, but can't remember...)

It was fine. It has the archetypical dimwitted sidekick, Hastings, who I hate, along with all other dimwitted sidekicks. In terms of solutions, Agatha did seem to try to work through every possible permutation of whodunnit, which is one of the things I like about it, and this one manages to get two lesser-spotted variants in, so I enjoyed that, even if it wasn't too hard to realise what they were going to be. It was over-full of people who were behaving overly suspiciously for insufficient reason beyond increasing the general spread of suspicious behaviour. I would neither particularly recommend it or steer people away from it; I might incline to the latter just because it's one of the Hastings-narrated ones. It lacks the wit that some of them have, not least I guess because it's saddled with a dimwitted narrator.

What have we learnt from it about the human condition? Nothing, really, but what did you expect?

Saturday, 9 January 2016

grey gardens

On Saturday 2nd January we all went to see the first preview (the matinee) of Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse. The two big names in it were Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell. Jenna Russell is a big name in musical theatre, though looking at her CV in the programme I don't think I've ever seen her before.

The performances were good throughout (I don't think it's unreasonable to make allowances for the strength of an 82-year-old's singing voice, which was perfectly tuneful), but Jenna Russell certainly stood out. Excellence in both singing and acting isn't an inevitable combination, but she has it.

While watching it I also thought that it would have worked well as a straight play, and there are very few musicals that you could say that of (the fact that the mother was a singer is an important part of the plot, so it is natural that some of the songs are there). It's based on an apparently famous/notorious 1975 documentary of the same name on the odd life in reduced circumstances of Jackie Kennedy's aunt and cousin, but very wisely the musical (Wikipedia entry here) included as a first half a depiction of the household in its 1941 heyday, on the purported occasion of the party celebrating the daughter's engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr. (Jenna Russell plays the daughter in 1973 and the mother in 1941; Sheila Hancock plays the mother in 1973.)

The play was well-written, and the songs weren't too bad for a modern musical (of course some of the songs were written for a style appropriate to songs the mother might have sung in 1941).

It was a first preview, so it would of course be unfair to review any production on that basis, but this, like my other similar notes, isn't a review in any real sense of the word. To my mind the miking was sometimes a little too loud in the spoken sections and not loud enough in the singing, but Bethan didn't think the former, and that's certainly something that would be ironed out if it is actually the case rather than just my ears. One thing which did jar, to the extent that I actually sent a Tweet to the company to mention it (!), was that the record which the mother had purportedly recorded before the war and which they 'played' in 1973 was a 45 when it should surely have been a 78, but again that may have been something that was being sorted out. Some of the accents seemed a bit patchy, but to be honest I don't judge a performance on how good someone is at mimicking a particular American accent (British, now that's a different matter...).

There were two girls (aged 13 and 10) in the cast (of nine), playing Jackie Kennedy and her sister, and one thing which particularly struck me was that they sang in the ensemble numbers, just as any cast member would. I'm not sure if that's especially notable, but it struck me at the time as unusual; they certainly held their own.

Previews are over, reviews are out... (interestingly, half the hits on the first page of Google results are articles from before it started - and first off, I'm reminded by one of those snippets that it's the European premier, which was slightly surprising, given the strength of the story, and the amount of off-west-end productions alone that come out every year). Telegraph (loved Sheila Hancock; oddly to me, hated the 1941 section as an unnecessary dilution of the 1973 section, exactly the opposite to my reaction; 1973 alone would have just been tedious, dingy and without depth). Guardian (3/5, like Telegraph). Independent (4/5; gives a clue to the Telegraph's antipathy, indicating how closely the second half follows the documentary - somewhere else said some of the lines are used verbatim - and how that documentary really became a Rocky Horror type cult classic with people copying the look and the lines; if you're devoted to that, the first half isn't what you want; to someone coming to it fresh, any wider audience, the first half is indispensible). BritishTheatre (5/5; a reminder that it's a good set - the audience is on three sides, the fourth wall is the back wall and balcony of the living room area of the main stage; packed full of detail; a longer review, mentioning more of cast and production team, thanks to it being an online review I guess). The Stage. TheGayUK (another first-half-hater). Gay Times (another fan of the 'camp classic' documentary (potential fans of camp classics did seem to be as well-represented in the audience as a lot of the musicals I go to, though not as many as Xanadu...), but seeing the value of the 1941 section in the musical). West End Whinger (currently down to one Whinger, it seems; 'Little Edie’s number, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” is as camp as it is hilarious and brilliantly performed by Jenna Russell who is absolutely at the top of her game here. How many single men of-a-certain-age (and there were a lot of single men of-a-certain-age at our performance) headed home to their bathroom mirrors and attempted “a Persian shawl, that used to hang on the bedroom wall, pinned under the chin, adorned with a pin and pulled into a twist” look? Go on admit it. We did.' ... 'The sound designer’s “live band knob” was cranked up far too high, which drowned swathes of the lyrics in Act 1 at the preview we attended, but things improved in Act 2.' ... 'Out of Andrew’s party (6 single men of-a-certain-age), 2 admitted to welling up at the end. Rather surprisingly Andrew was one of them and he hadn’t felt this emotional since he found out the queue created by Southwark’s unreserved seating policy begins at around 6.45pm for a curtain up at 7.30pm. Now that’s what we call batty.' - we were surprised to turn up 15 mins before the start to find that the place was almost full; we didn't hurry to get there earlier because often they haven't let us into the theatre more than 10/15 mins before the start). The Reviews Hub ('A few details mean this can’t take five stars. It’s a small enough venue, intimate, so the choice to amplify the singers voices seems a little overbearing and the mics are distracting from this close up'; reminds me of the rice crispie mics, intrusive to start with, though you do get used to them a bit; in this production/performance not on cheek but in the middle of the forehead like an Indian jewel; they still have to sort out a way to resolve this, that if you're going to start mic-ing up stage actors/singers, then less obtrusive technology is going to have to develop, and amplification finesse is going to have to improve to not have a distancing effect from the performance). West End Wilma ('Musically, Grey Gardens is very much in the 1940’s style with no real eleven o’clock number to write home about but some good songs like ‘Marry Well’, ‘Daddy’s Girl’, ‘Peas In A Pod’ and ‘The Revolutionary Costume For Today’ which received huge applause from the audience at the beginning of act 2. ... Jenna Russell is a credit to Musical Theatre.' - what may have been intended as a criticism of the music is why I liked it). What's On Stage ('Hancock subsides arthritically on her bed, feebly waving the stars and stripes as the manse is invaded by ghosts – these are the notorious cats that ran wild in Grey Gardens' - forgot this, a nice touch. 'in such an intimate theatre, the musical arrangements might have been better done acoustically. The noise and blah does not really suit the content, the sound system (usual grumble) is bad, and the mikes on the actors look like weird facial scars'). Theatre Cat (Libby Purves). British Theatre Guide (more trouble with sound, partly configuration and partly amplification they reckon; for all the comments, however, and their accuracy, not hearing the words is a common issue with anything involving songs). West End Frame (' It's such a luxury for an off-West End production to have a ten piece band, they play in a separate room to enable sound levels to be perfected - a big step forward for the Southwark Playhouse. ... I can't decide whether I think the piece would work in the West End. I wouldn't want any intimacy to be lost; however, if tweaked appropriately Southerland's production could be destined for future life. The cast are certainly West End standard (Russell would be an award season favourite)' - I didn't realise that was the band set-up, which makes sense, as we certainly couldn't work out where they were; I did think it could work in the West End, and as with many fringe productions I've seen the production is certainly the equal of it). Musical Theatre Review ('If Act I were a full length musical, it would be a fine piece, evocative of an era while touching on topics that the coy 1940s may only have hinted at. But where Grey Gardens elevates beyond that is in a complete tonal shift in Act II.' - there's certainly a big contrast, but it works, and you do feel the through-line even though the journey from 1941 to 1973 is (happily) not over-explained). Gizzle Review (new to me). Mature Times (also new to me).

Generally positive, then, and criticisms mostly minor ones I agree with or major ones I disagree with.

And what have we learned? Family relationships can tangle you up. Things can drift or stagnate if you don't have a Plan B. You can slide into strangeness without realising you've moved beyond normal or reasonable. It doesn't take much.

Friday, 8 January 2016

ella enchanted

On Tuesday 22 December we watched Ella Enchanted on the digibox. The premise (curse of obedience - cursed to do whatever anyone told you) didn't bear analysis, in a way which was annoying rather than being easy to suspend disbelief about and go along with (even with mother's foolish deathbed instruction to never tell anyone of the curse, this could be overruled by someone ordering her to tell her secret, or the good fairy who knew of it and the promise simply overturning it (which makes it monstrous that she didn't), so that you could take your friends with you everywhere to overrule mischief-makers; but even that's giving it too much analysis).

That aside, it was a charming and well put together slight subversion of the fairytale genre. Anne Hathaway in particular had a very charming screen presence. The only thing I've seen her in before, I think, is The Devil Wears Prada (yes, my feminine side and I are in constant touch). And Wikipedia suggests that it was her own voice used when she sang Somebody To Love in the film, which is impressive if it's the case, as it was a good version (and which prompts me to mention that, as in pantos, I liked the use of contemporary pop songs). (Ah, seen her in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland too, which I wasn't fussy about as a film.)

Thursday, 7 January 2016

folk london comment re folk song arrangements

I bought the December/January issue of Folk London at the South Bank last week and was surprised to something from me in it which I'd forgotten about.

I'm on the editor, Peter Crabb-Wyke,'s mailing list as I'm the contact for Morris Folk Club, in relation to our listing in the magazine and on the website.

In his copy reminder email in October he wrote:
'Below is a rough draft of an idea for part of my next editorial. I would love to have some comments to print on this topic either for or against:
'While listening to Kathrine Tickell being interviewed on radio 3’s Private Passions in October I was struck by her choice of Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Shepherd’s Hey. It is fashionable to decry the orchestral arrangements of folk tunes from the early twentieth century but, apart from the instrumentation, I really couldn’t see any difference to some of the fanciful arrangements that the latest generation of young folk musicians are turning out.'

I replied, and he printed my reply (along with the other two replies he'd got). I said:
're your editorial thought, I'd say that we would be wise to embrace the reality that our favourite contemporary versions of old songs will in future years both sound dated & be unappreciated and also come back into fashion & be appreciated, often both at the same time. There's no such thing as bad arrangements, just arrangements one likes and arrangements one doesn't like. The songs and tunes will carry on, regardless.'

I had in mind, though I didn't spell it out, contemporary versions from previous decades which have gone out of and sometimes come back into fashion/acceptability.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

oz the great and powerful

This evening we finished watching Oz The Great And Powerful, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, though unlike Wicked it was an original screenplay rather than based on a book. As often with prequels, the fact that you know where it's got to get to does overshadow it a bit, but on the whole it was done pretty well, with interesting plot and characterisation, and worked satisfactorily as a film in its own right.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

death on the nile

On Sunday 3 January I finished Death On The Nile by Agatha Christie.

It was an unusual read for me, as I have very rarely read an Agatha Christie in which I've known who had done it in advance. I haven't seen that many adaptations, and I don't generally remember who has done it anyway, and sometimes they change who has done it. But I saw the Peter Ustinov film version of Death On The Nile a few years ago, and I remembered one key incident in it, and very soon in reading the book it was clear which characters were involved, and therefore the solution to the mystery.

What it did mean, however, was that I was able to read it and appreciate the skill with which it was constructed. On the one hand, knowing whodunnit meant that as I read it it seemed glaringly obvious whodunnit, because I could see all the pointers to it. On the other, I could see how elegantly hidden in plain sight the clues were, and in particular the perfect phrasing in conversation and description which did not deceive but artfully misled. Poirot - like Marple - is a detective who doesn't share all he knows with the reader or his sidekick, just makes cryptic comments and hints, which I'm not too keen on (I like those detectives who significantly share their thought processes with the reader, so you are alongside them; I think Adam Dalgleish is like this, for example), but it's not too tiresome if you don't read too many in succession. And at least it's better than those ones - of which Agatha has a number - where the amateur sleuths spend pages swopping all their constructed permutations of who might have done it why and how, which is very tedious.

The lesson of the danger of loving too intensely was nicely counterbalanced by a couple of happy endings for other cast members.

Not being a re-reader, so not usually being able to read from that point of view of knowledge, the experience was well worth it for a change, but I wouldn't want to do it too often.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

the end of the affair

On Sunday 27 December I finished The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. It was good, and interesting. Some of the plot turns seemed a bit implausible to me - and I was surprised that the key point about why the affair ends came so late, because I'd got the impression that it was very early on given how freely it is referred to, but I guess people aren't too worried about spoilers relating to books published in 1951. But - I guess like my recent Father Brown read - it is most interesting when read as a study of and reflection on matters of faith and related issues, in particular the strong draw to faith and belief there can be almost against the resistant and unbelieving will.

The Wikipedia entry gives some interesting background info, including indications that I was right to guess that the Common in question was Clapham, and that the initialled dedicatee of the book was a woman with whom Mr Greene had had an affair (the protagonist was a novelist).