Victoria

3 May

There may be a couple of spoilers in here, so if you haven’t seen the film Victoria and want to see it without knowing anything about it, reading a blog about it probably isn’t a very good idea. However, I’m not giving much away, I promise. I enjoyed it very much. It’s certainly a film that’s stayed with me.

I realise that I seldom go into a cinema knowing nothing about the film I’m about to see. Does it matter? I don’t know. I think it helps (me, at least) to know something, although if I do, I tend to find myself as the film progresses having to readjust from my preconceptions. Often of course you go to see a film because you like the idea of it. I went to see the German film “Victoria” (directed by Sebastian Schipper) knowing very little about it, except a couple of things. I knew that it was a heist thriller and I knew that it was all shot in one take.

This got me thinking: there’s a danger with this sort of thing that the technical prowess could be distracting or at least be the main point of the film, the story less important – e.g. Mike Figgis’s Timecode. If you strip away the single take element, the central premise of Victoria stands very well on its own – it’s a strong idea for a thriller and I’m sure it would have worked very well if it had been shot and edited in a more conventional manner.

However, knowing these two facts about the film mean that from the very beginning you feel nervous. The strict linearity of it is a compelling element in the unfolding story. I think in this case knowing that it’s all shot in one take adds to the intensity of the experience, and I think the constraints of this decision benefit the storytelling too. Rather than feeling distracted by the conceit, everything feels very immediate, your awareness heightened.

Wanting to learn a bit more about the film I looked at the IMDB page. Foolishly I also looked at the comments, and these have also got me thinking. I was baffled to see that some people objected to the film on the grounds of plausibility (a review I saw elsewhere also took this line). The objectors seemed to think ‘a woman’ wouldn’t behave like that – ie take the risk she takes in going off with the boys. To me this is just sexism – the inability of (let’s face it) men to imagine how a woman might behave. She’s not ‘a woman’, she’s THIS woman, and the film explains very clearly exactly why she behaves the way she does. In fact, the film is all about why she behaves that way. It’s not about all the other women who might have behaved differently, it’s about this story. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been a film. Criticisms have been levelled that the first hour meanders, but I disagree. You are gradually building up your understanding of who she is and why she behaves the way she does. Don’t be deceived by appearances.

Actually her story is incredibly touching, and it brings me to the other part of the equation in the plausibility issue – the scepticism about the risk she is taking seems to centre round the idea that these boys are bad news, that ‘a woman’ would never go off with these dangerous strangers. In this case I think it is a bit of classicism and racism. The boys are self-declared ‘true Berliners’. One of them (at least) is an East German, one of them is a Turkish immigrant (both probably second generation). They are clearly not part of the fashionable Berlin world. There is no doubt that they are petty criminals – she sees this right at the beginning, but she also sees them very soon after this at pains to avoid a fight. They are not thugs. They are also charming and funny and silly after a night out, not ready to go home. She makes a judgment. She knows very well what she is doing. And in terms of the story you never know quite where the inevitable danger lurks – from them or from her, or from somewhere else. This tension keeps up from the first five minutes until the very end.

It’s worth saying the performances are truly amazing, extremely naturalistic, it’s almost impossible to believe they did it all in three attempts and that the dialogue was largely improvised. The soundtrack is superb too from Nils Frahm – with a bit of DJ Koze in there for good measure.

Bright Star

2 Feb

On school days my alarm goes off at 6.50ish. I put on Radio 4 and doze. A few minutes later our 12 year old son stumbles in and clambers into our bed, shortly followed by our 10 year old; a little cuddle to ease us into the day. It’s a bit of a squash these days and I sometimes find myself sitting in the armchair next to the bed. So it was one Monday in January 2016. I reached for my phone, as many of us do first thing in the day, and looked at twitter. Every tweet was about David Bowie. Shock, sadness, the usual hopes that it was a hoax. I quickly scrolled through to the trustworthy news accounts. No. It was true. I looked at the row of curly heads in the bed. The 7 o’clock news was about to come on. I didn’t know quite what to do. I sat in the peace of the morning. The news announcer headlined Bowie’s death. The curly heads didn’t seem to respond, perhaps they hadn’t heard. I had to say something, get this news out there, clearly. “David Bowie’s died” I said.

Now, I have a confession to make. I’m not a huge fan of David Bowie. I don’t mean this in the way people say “I’m not a huge fan of artichokes” where they really mean “I fucking hate artichokes”. I just mean I’m not a fan. I’m not really a fan of anything, I simply don’t have a fan mentality. I love lots of things, but I don’t have that tendency to go deeply into things. Of course I’ve always loved Bowie’s music. The first record I bought was The Jean Genie. Over the years I’ve occasionally bought Bowie albums. I lost interest in his music around the usual time – you know. I was glad to hear he was dabbling in Drum & Bass, because I love D&B, but I’ve only really listened to the old stuff since… you know. I follow his son, Duncan, on twitter, so get a bit of Bowie news second hand, and was really touched recently seeing him tweet “I’m so proud of Dad” when the Broadway musical Lazarus launched. Dad! I showed it to my wife Karen. How lovely, I said. But Bowie was never a passion, or no more so than countless other music makers over the years.

I have another confession to make. I am one of those people who raise an eyebrow at twitter grief. The sceptical gaze very soon turns towards myself. Why am I not the sort of person who cares passionately about the death of a stranger? How come I haven’t been deeply influenced by this person who seems to have been such a big part of so many people’s lives? I would never criticise other people for their grief and I understand the urge to be on twitter, sharing, discussing, conjuring up memories. I’ve just never felt that moved by a celebrity death – oh, except maybe John Peel, but that was way before twitter.

So why was I sitting there on that Monday morning, sobbing for at least half an hour? Part of the shock was that he seemed so full of life, so full of creation. It was the last thing you expected. So why, still, when I listen to Black Star do I start welling up?

I wanted to write this from the point of view of somebody who wasn’t a huge Bowie fan, somebody who just liked him, really loved some of him, couldn’t care less about other bits of him, to try to explain his impact – to myself. Not another eulogy to a genius, I hoped that in writing it I might find the answers that – as of right now, as I type this sentence – I don’t have.

I’ve realised that, despite not being a ‘fan’, Bowie is a love that my wife and I share. We listen to his CDs in the car, occasionally, with the boys. They know some of his songs. There isn’t really any other music from that era that I go back to (apart from Roxy Music, but Karen and I don’t share that). But Bowie is there, and he has been part of our lives, and now our family lives, quietly, from time to time.

So we sat down together one evening and watched the Black Star video soon after it came out, all four of us (five including the dog) on the sofa. Watch it, we said. We felt it was important, somehow. It’s a bit weird, they said. Yes, we replied. And I’ve looked back at that emotion that I felt, saying “Yes”, to try to unravel what was in my heart. I think it was pride. I felt proud of Bowie. That he was still making different, beautiful music. He represented all sorts of things about artistic and personal integrity that lots of people have commented on. But he also represented us, as parents, our generation, and the sort of lives we’ve tried to carve out for ourselves, trying to make art, trying to say it’s ok to our boys to be a bit different. Yes, I felt proud of Bowie. There he was, an old man but not an old man at all, still vital, still surprising, still… a bit weird. Our legacy to children who have to deal with a very complex world. What can we give them to equip them for what’s ahead? Well, a bit of Bowie should help.

I still don’t really know why I cried because, like I say, I’m not that sort of person.

A Brief Tribute to My Mum

9 Oct

I read a brief tribute to my mum, Jane Allain, at her funeral at the Woodlands burial site in Wrabness on Sunday 4th October, 2015. It was a beautiful sunny, faintly misty day on the north Essex coast. She is buried not far from Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex. Mum loved Grayson. She was an Essex woman, who also loved the estuaries and marshes of this beautiful, strange, unorthodox, irreverent county. A silver birch will be planted on her grave, within earshot of the curlews out on the mud flats. Despite the sadness, it was a joyful and happy day celebrating her life. These are my words…

I’ve been reflecting on mum’s legacy, her effect on me, in particular, and I think there are two primary things that emerge, and they’re both related. These are Art and Laughter.

The first is art. As you all know mum loved to paint and draw and to write – poetry and drama in particular. I think she knew that she was not what you would call a great artist or poet – I think she was something more valuable and fundamental. To be creative was just the natural thing, it was the purpose of being human. She painted and wrote throughout her life and hung on to it as long as she could. Even towards the end she wanted to discuss her latest drawings with me, their successes and failings. She was always striving to improve, but mostly it was for the pleasure of doing and just simply because that’s what you do.

This is something I have inherited from her. Being creative is the way I want to spend my time and the idea that you just make things for other people to enjoy seems a simple part of being human and something that I am delighted that my children have also inherited.

Beyond that she exposed us to creative people all the time, so that when we were in Southend as young teenagers we were regulars at PMG (Poetry and Music Group) with its strange and wonderful collection of characters: Jack Cannon, Laurie Nelkin and Bimbo in particular are fixed in my memory. Mum also took us to amazing avant garde music gigs. She had no sense that it would be too much for us, or that it was inappropriate in any way. It was just a fantastic cultural education.

The other aspect of mum which is very strong for me is a love of laughter. When I’m not creating something I am happiest being with friends and family – chatting, eating, drinking and making each other laugh. These are simply the happiest times and I don’t want much more from life than that. And that is something I will always associate with mum, even from being a small child listening to the adults talking and laughing together was the greatest thrill, and as I grew up I began to turn from a listener to a participant, and that was even better. Karen [my wife] has described our family get togethers as having a slightly dangerous feeling – you never quite knew what was going to happen – you could more or less guarantee there would be the odd flare up as well as gales of laughter – but it would always be exciting and fun, and mum would be there at the centre of things, laughing.

And I was thinking about another aspect of mum that I always took for granted but I think was quite remarkable. She was frequently the butt of our jokes, we teased her all the time, and Paul [my brother] and I in particular used to lampoon her mercilessly at Alsager college poetry and music evenings. And yet she never once took it badly, in fact she was always the first to laugh along. She just loved it, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on how this could be so. She took her writing and her art very seriously, yet she never seemed to mind us taking the micky. I think what it boils down to is that she just had an enormous sense of fun and that was something that spread to all around her. There was one aspect of this which was always the cause of great embarrassment to me, but for which I admired her completely – she would chat to anyone, was always interested in what other people were up to and had no hesitation to mix in with strangers’ conversations, wherever we were. I would cringe with embarrassment, beg her not to, fool that I am. The fact is that she had an insatiable curiosity about other people, and it was deeply rooted in love for humanity, which I think has imbued all of us with a political sense of compassion.

These are all qualities which I aspire to and are essential to who I am, and values which I cherish in my loved ones and see in the next generation of mum’s grandchildren as her legacy continues.

Tales of Ray

19 Jul

I once tweeted some stories about Ray Mears. I don’t know why.

A Tale of Ray

There, out at the ice edge. Talking, occasionally laughing, with a little bunny made of moss. Ray Mears.

The crew, they say they felt rather than saw it coming. Points gradually accumulating to build a case. A case history.

Point one. Ray, usually eager to show and tell, becomes ever more secretive, back turned,cradling his close-work. What you got there, Ray?

Kindling. More kindling, Ray? Practising. The close-work whisked away. So, point one. Hardly a point at all, on its own, except… Point two.

Ray starts talking about his ambitions. I wannado kids TV! he says one day. All this stuff, there’s got to be an audience, I’d have loved it

Kids these days would love it! More to life than street corners, steaming, gang-fights [who’s your audience, Ray?]. But. Fair point. Kids.

So, still hardly a point, so hardly a point two and therefore hardly a point one. Except… this: point three.

One night, round the fire, spooning tinned rice pudding into his face. Seen that Harry Hill TV Burp? says Ray. Mears, on his months off, …

watches a lot of telly. Love that Harry Hill! he says. All those characters he’s invented. Adults love it – and kids too. The crew exchange

glances. We can sense he’s going somewhere. He seems peculiarly animated, in a sort of fug – no, a fugue. He sits for a while, fixed grin.

Puts down his tin, his spoon. Tilts his head slightly, eyes, yes, they’re moist, we can see in the firelight. I’d… love to have a sidekick.

A sidekick Ray? No one laughs, god knows we want to. Yes, a side kick. Like the knitted character! Someone I can bounce off, a… character.

What did you have in mind, Ray? It’s so quiet out here. We are 15k from the nearest road. I can feel lead in my belly. What are u thinking?

Something like this… He pulls from behind him a small bundle. It looks like a childs toy – a small rabbit. He holds it out to us.

This is Bun-Bun, he says.

Say hello to Bun-Bun, children.

Another Tale of Ray

I sit and look out across the estuary, and I can’t help thinking of another body of water, sitting there by the camp fire as my father…

told me tales of Ray Of The Wild. As the sun set over the loch his thoughts would inevitably turn to his time with the great Mears.

Ray lowered his great bulk onto the throne. If there was one thing that would bend to his will, it was a willow switch. And a bundle of them

made a comfortable, regal seat. Ray’s thoughts turned to the word, “fascist” that has its roots in the Italian word for “bundle”.

A single stick can be snapped, he intoned – and as he did so he cracked a dry twig in half – but together, we are strong!

He surveyed his “crew” ranged around him. On his left, Bun-Bun, his factotem. Bun-Bun seemed able to articulate thoughts beyond Ray’s grasp.

Faithful Bun-Bun. This was an early incarnation of the little, mossy figure. Around the circle: Lord Pest – a badger’s skull on a tripod of

beech limbs. Hecate, a clay ball bristling with feathers. Dangling along the branches by twine of woven grass at least a dozen more clay

balls, each with crudely drawn features in berry juice, pigments and tiny bloods – the Andrews Sisters Ray calls them. His arch enemies in

the school playground, here they do not call him fatty, they do not pinch and kick him. Here, he is the king. Ray Of The Wild.

My father had stood a way off, hardly able to hear the mutterings of young Mears. A twig snapped beneath his feet – Ray turned his head,

sharp as a fox. Turned his beady eye on my father. On their own they are weak! he called and waved him over. “Not a bad audience” said Ray.

Further Tales of Ray

Ray has spent the morning showing us how to caulk a coracle with resin from freshly cut pine boughs. He’s about ready to test it, to camera.

He has carefully placed Bun-Bun in the boat with him. You can clearly see it on camera, but luckily he doesn’t talk to it. This is good.

He’s superbly professional, hardly ever needs more than one take, knows his stuff. After it’s in the can, he paddles out, right out, into

the lake. He just sits there for quite a while. We zoom in with the camera, he seems to be talking – to Bun-Bun we presume. It’s silent but

You can see him getting increasingly animated in the frame. Suddenly our attention is snapped away from the monitor to the real scene.

Raised voices out on the lake, the coracle rocking. We hold the camera steady on the tiny boat, fearful. We witness Ray pick up Bun-Bun and

start pulling it apart, we hear his distance shouts carry across the water. The disconnect between sound and image is familiar but unnerving

After a while, Ray paddles back to the shore in silence. He seems quiet when he gets back, but not unduly upset. Would you mind clearing out

that crap? he asks me, gesturing behind me to the little round boat. There are a few fragments of torn moss and something… fleshy there.

No problem, Ray. Good take, earlier, by the way. Really good. You go and rest. Fishing this afternoon. He smiles and walks to his bivouac.

Ray Mears – a postscript

Not to be missed: this afternoon, in the woods, Ray will be demonstrating how you can make a bunny out of moss and woven grass.

He will show how the heart of a rabbit (which you have trapped, skinned, gutted and eaten)

will animate your creation with a vital force.

Two polished black stones will sparkle in the head. A heart embedded in clay will be just audible on nights when you can see the Milky Way.

Ray will show how you can breathe life into its tiny mouth, hold it up to the grasp of rosey-fingered dawn, invoke the atavistic spirits.

Tea and biscuits will be available and a chance to talk to Ray about his killing techniques and hair-stylist.

12 Things You Didn’t Know About Spiders

14 May

This page is the ideal way to learn all about spider facts – and some you didn’t!

1 Spiiders have eight letters, which is the same as their legs – spooky!

2 People have always been scared of spiders, even in the olden days when people were quite brave and fought other hairy creatures like mammoths.

3 The reason people are scared of spiders is because of the eight legs. It is like a hand, creeping about on its own, waiting to do a mischief like tickle you or feel you up. But worse, because it’s got two extra fingers!

4 You would think that something also with eight legs like an octopus would be brave with a spider, but NO! Because, think what it would be like if you suddenly saw a tiny little hairy man scuttling about on the floor – you’d be scared too, just like an octopus would of a spider!

5 For a lot of people born in the 1950s their earliest memory will be of a spider. This is because bananas were suddenly available and spiders were stowing away on them.

6 It is very famous that the Black Widow Spider will kill and eat a male spider after she has made it do an egg.

7 Another name for a spider is ‘arachnid’ which means ‘spider’ in a LOT of languages now.

7 Spiders are well known to crawl across your face while you’re asleep, so leave a fly on your chin as a snack.

8 You can overcome your fear of scuttling spiders by clip-clopping two halves of coconut shell together to make them seem like a horse

9 Watching spiders webs with flies dying and wrestling and struggling for life is almost as good as reality celebs on TV although you might not recognise the spider from somewhere but can’t put your finger on it, alternatively have never heard of the spider.

11 A spider has 8 legs so it can wrestle a fly while reading a newspaper.

12 A spider will walk on its hind legs if it thinks no one is looking.

Clarkson’s Army

25 Mar

Here’s a short story I tweeted a few years ago, presented in its original form.

In the end more than 500 farmers agreed to take part in the plan. They donned their Jeremy Clarkson clothes and masks, and brought the…

ready-to-hatch duck eggs into the warm and dark. Other members of the family were dismissed during that night. The volunteers sat in the…

warmth and darkness with their precious charges. Throughout that long night the little ducklings emerged from their shells. And who was the

first person they saw? Jeremy Clarkson, of course. Or “Mummy” as the little balls of fluff preferred to think of him. For the next few days

the farmers spent every minute with the little army of ducklings, ensuring they were completely imprinted. And then, at the agreed hour,

They climbed into their various landrovers and four-wheel drives and drove through the night to arrive at Clarkson’s doorstep at dawn.

Before they released the ducklings from their little cages, they donned 21st Century clothes and took off their Clarkson masks. Quickly they

ran from that place, as the agitated throng of ducklings began to quack with ever increasing vehemence “Mummy!”, “Mummy!”, “MUMMY!”.

A bleary-eyed Jeremy stumbled from his bed to his front door unable to identify the cacophony outside. As he swung it open, they, however,

were more than able to identify the big silly duck standing in the doorway. Mummy! To this day Jeremy Clarkson is followed by a horde of

ducklings who will fight to the death to protect him, their mother. Clarkson and his duck army.

I Explain A Joke

23 Mar

This is a sarcastic and bitter blog. Don’t read it if you’re not in the mood for that sort of thing.

I am bored of explaining to people why jokes don’t need to be technically correct (and usually rely on NOT being technically correct for their effect). So I am going to test the limits of my boredom by explaining in detail a joke I tweeted today and which a few people told me was wrong.

The joke, which was one of a series with the hashtag #complicatedrhymingslang, was this:

“Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrndrobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch = sock
#complicatedrhymingslang”.

A few people replied to this tweet to correct me that “…goch” doesn’t rhyme with “sock”.

I think it’s worth pointing out that I know that “…goch” doesn’t ‘technically’ rhyme with “sock”. However, I have to qualify this by saying, I also know that ‘technically’ “goch” DOES rhyme with “sock”. This is called “rhyme in assonance” and is a key feature of much poetry. I’m no expert on the subject, but even I know this. Sorry if you already know this too, but I am explaining things. So, telling me that “goch” doesn’t rhyme with “sock” is, technically, incorrect.

I would further qualify this by saying that it’s difficult to talk about rhyme in spoken English as there are so many variations in pronunciation. Spoken English is a rich and beautiful thing, even within England. In my erstwhile role as an architect I used to work with communities from all across the UK, helping them to develop briefs for community centres, and I have to say that I often encountered accents and dialects so strong that I couldn’t understand what people were saying. I suspect this will gradually change, but the richness and variety within such a small island is an amazing and precious thing. (And that’s just indigenous dialects, let alone the myriad versions of English spoken across the globe). I hope my point is clear. We have to be very careful when we talk about ‘correct’ pronunciation.

My recommendation would therefore be, when presented with jokes which rely on the spoken word (such as puns), to find the ways in which words or sounds are similar, rather than trying to find ways in which they are dissimilar.

I usually write my tweets in my own voice, or something close to it. I speak RP English. I don’t speak Welsh, so my understanding of the correct pronunciation of “goch” is that it is something akin to “loch” and a softer Spanish “j”. That’s my understanding. There are probably quite a few RP speakers out there who would agree with this. So from my point of view “goch” isn’t a strict rhyme with “sock”. But.

This is all by the by. The POINT of my joke, just to explain it (I am explaining), was not the ‘correct’ pronunciation of “goch”, but the long-windedness and absurdity of using a notoriously hard-to-remember British place name as rhyming slang for a one syllable, commonplace word – “sock”. Now, to enjoy the joke to the full, either you can go with the assonance, so feel comfortable with the rhyme and the joke still stands. Or, as a bonus, you can feel that it ‘doesn’t quite rhyme properly’, which IS ALSO PART OF THE JOKE. I nearly followed up the tweet with a comment along the lines of “Some people will take issue with the pronunciation”. But I didn’t want to spoil the possibility that some people might also wring a bit of extra enjoyment from the slight dissonance of the ‘awkward’ rhyme. To be fair, I think a quite a few people got this.

So, setting aside whether the joke is funny or not (which is obviously a matter of personal taste. I for example find it only mildly amusing), there is quite a lot going on in the joke that you should parse carefully before telling me “goch” doesn’t rhyme with “sock”, and I have very kindly in a completely non-patronising way explained it all to you.

Bunch of cochs.