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Sunday 31 March 2013

Have I Gen. Zhukov's toughness?

(Above) Von Paulus plans an outflanking manoeuvre

Missie, my younger daughter's Cairn terrier, is spending an uneasy ten days with me and - as I write this - I realise where the roots of dissension lie. I am old and so is she. Please note: this is an I-post, not a we-post (ie, one that necessarily includes VR's views)

If I adjust Missie's doggie years to match mine, both of us are staring 80 in the face. Selfishness and routine are essential in cheating Biblical expectation and both she and I rely on these factors every waking moment. Inevitably there are clashes.

I should also explain I have reached a financial point in life where saving money becomes irrelevant and spending is all that is left. Just recently I was almost party to a decision to spend £75 on a pair of Hotter Energises ("Shoes to fall in love with" says the publicity; see pic) and this project only came to nought when I discovered that Size 11 isn't available in a wider fitting. Who needs more than one pair of shoes, anyway?

What I was party to was the replacement of a rather gloomy, dark green leather sofa, still in fairly good nick, with a gayer, stripy sofa from Parker Knoll (ie, pricey) on the grounds that it lifts the otherwise pessimistic atmosphere of the living room. An airy-fairy idea which confirms only one thing: when it comes to cash I disburse rather than conserve.

I am sure you can see where this is leading. The PK sofa is becoming a symbolic Stalingrad in the war of wills between Missie and me. The hell with the living room decor, says she; those stripes would set off my highlighted greys. And while I prefer to play the triumphant role of General Zhukov (All those medals!), leaving Missie as the unfortunate General Von Paulus, I fear the coughing tendency has returned, despite antibiotics, and I am a weakened force. More later, perhaps.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Sixty years and he's bedded in

It's Maundy Thurday. The Queen hands out money to the poor, or some such. I've never read it up, it doesn't interest me. For me the day resonates for quite another reason.

I've posted about it before and I ask you to forgive me if you remember. You could say Maundy Thursday widened my world.

I was working in the fifties at Bingley, West Yorkshire, as a hack reporter. Long hours covering the sort of events dealt with at length in weekly newspapers: court cases about child molestation, school speech days, early and late shows put on by the Chrysanthemum Society, gymkhanas, church annual meetings, amateur dramatics. And music.

On two Maundy Thursdays, a year apart, I was assigned to write about performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion  at Bingley Parish Church. I was aware of Bach. I owned an LP of Albert Schweitzer playing the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ in Gunsbach in Alsace ("The organ is out of tune," noted The Gramophone in its review). I can't pretend either performance overwhelmed me; the process more resembled laying down mulch on a garden in Spring. But something, I think, was born on those two Thursdays.

Gradually Bach's distinctive voice sang out to me over the decades and it is now impossible for me to imagine being without Vengerov bowing the Chaconne on an unaccompanied violin, DF-D as one of the soloists in the Christmas Oratorio, any of four pianists doing the Goldberg.

The experience came full circle last year when we heard Sir Simon Rattle with the CBSO doing the St Matthew in Birmingham. An identifiable thread in an ill-directed life. How important? Perhaps the equal of my right foot. I could hobble but it wouldn't be pleasant.

Monday 25 March 2013

How can women fancy men? Pt 4

Why this four-part series?  I might say it proves I sympathise with women's plight. But I'd be a fool not to fear feminist "correction". Some grammatical or syntactical error, some maladroit choice of noun which would quickly prove I was deluded. Take to your bed, old man.

Claiming to understand women's plight - as I am - is even more dangerous except that I plead a special case.

In 2009 I started novel-writing and have since written three, getting on for half a million words. I found myself wanting to concentrate on women. I'm not sure why but I ended up with three women (Clare, Jana, Judith) in whom I invested some effort and, I suppose, much love.

All three live in the real world. Thus I found myself having to "hand over" or, at the very least, "lend" C, J and J to men. It is only now I realise I found it subconsciously difficult to do this. And this is evident in the plots.

Clare's is the most conventional story and ends in rapprochement. Despite her admirer's essential decency, I had to give Clare the moral high ground in that final chapter.

Jana's story is darker. Physically disadvantaged for the gender struggles she takes up with a man whose main defect is bound up with  his attraction. The hell with masculine power.

Successful and gorgeous Judith is brought low by a man and then, through indirect association, even (horrifyingly) lower. Two "non-biological" men assist in her rehabilitation but new spiritual backbone is provided by a woman.

You could say I lack the detachment to write novels. That I am in thrall to women. That my only achievements are several brief vacations on the other side of the gender fence. So be it.

Saturday 23 March 2013

How can women fancy men? Pt 3

Summarising: To maintain humanity women need to find men attractive A poor deal for women, as I shall explain. A system "with minor exceptions", I said previously, but Lucy adds "not so minor", citing lesbianism and celibacy. I agree about lesbianism and would go further; not just on behalf of women who have come out but for the larger total who have experimented. Proof that the Intelligent Designer (that ironic entity) had a bad day at the drawing board.

Celibacy is a more dubious option which needs more space than I have. It also needs dividing into voluntary and imposed states and may still be minor.

Men are a poor deal because:

They rationalise then start wars.

Having started/finished a war, they spend aeons celebrating the glories they experienced therein.

Men become obsessed by sport which is bad enough. But some take up dangerous sports (motor racing, climbing) which overrule both connubial and familial responsibilities.

When death overtakes a dangerous sport practitioner he is ennobled (by other men) instead of being escorted to a suicide's grave.

Men's needs traduce the wonder of publishing. Women's porn may exist, but there is no doubt about men's porn.

Not naturally ingenious, men rise to the heights in devising pay systems which discriminate against women.

Men have an inexact idea about improving their attractions, often accidentally increasing their sexual appeal to other men.

Men appear to fear ballet.

Primitive ideas about physical dominance over women are not confined to primitive living conditions.

Men assume parenthood reluctantly.

Astute readers (No gender, no pack-drill) will recognise some of the above are included via my personal experience.

Much of what I've said is obvious. Part Four, the final part, will explain why I said it.

Friday 22 March 2013

How can women fancy men? Pt 2

It's my own fault, I've cried wolf too often, twice saying I was going to stop blogging yet reneging within twenty-four hours. I expected irritation, accusations of authorial naivete, or inanition from Part One. Instead I've accidentally misled readers into imagining I was trying to drum up interest (US: to shill, an under-used verb) in a forthcoming short story.

Pregnant with meaning though they may have seemed, the couple in Part One had only an exemplary function and will remain set in amber unless, of course, I go completely off the rails and this modest series takes a turn I cannot yet foresee.

Because of course the question contained in the title isn't a question. Women can fancy men because they do. They are coded to do so. And let me admit men are similarly coded but, in this series, I have no interest in that.

So let's repeat that stark statement: women can fancy men because, to tweak Martin Luther, Sie können nicht anders. With one or two minor exceptions.

Put concisely this law depresses me. The fact that women cannot choose meaningful relationships with Mount Aconcagua, Cuvier's gazelle, Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl, the Post Office Tower or a referendum in Switzerland, certainly diminishes the value - in broad terms - of the relationship they get stuck with. After all one woman here on Earth went even further. Choosing me out of several billion others she passed through an acutely embarrassing ceremony in order to make nearness to me a permanent state. I was surprised and overjoyed. It felt like a heck of a compliment, but suppose her choice had been infinite. See what I mean?

It is with a heavy heart that I now see this series will run to Part Four. At least.

Thursday 21 March 2013

How can women fancy men? Pt 1

They were out of earshot but we had our own conversational fish to fry and I only glanced their way occasionally.

She faced me three-quarters front, moving a lot on her chair, talking, gesturing, frequently bending - almost swooping -  across the table towards him. In her thirties, lushly featured and fully made-up, wearing a loose dark green blouse with loose sleeves. Her hair was dark brown or perhaps black and I imagine it had started out that evening as a neat soft cloud round her head. But animation and (pure imagination, this, but it fitted her character) a tendency to run her fingers through it at moments of emphasis had deranged it pleasingly.

From three-quarters rear he was everything she wasn't. He sat erect and immobile, his gaze permanently directed at her. Balding, he had had the remainder cut very short, but his was not one of those heads shaped for hairlessness: almost perfectly spherical. suggesting somehow a tennis ball. Jacketless, he wore a formal pale blue shirt (almost certainly with a tie) and the fabric looked over-starched. Possibly close to forty.

They were a couple, both demonstrably interested in each other. If she talked he certainly listened. I think they were having a good, albeit adult, time.

In my fiction I prefer female rather than male heroes. As happens these women are attracted to men. But how can that be? I look at men (including myself in the mirror) and I see only the physical imperfections, the self-interested sexual stratagems, wariness, insincere responses, a certain slowness. Men seem unattractive and if women pair up with them surely it's because there's no better alternative. Yes I am heterosexual but that isn't the full answer.

You're saying I'm a romantic simpleton but there's more groundlaying to come.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Cooking is incidental

Forget the cook; he/she's on an ego trip. The true hero is the consumer who's prepared to eat noisily or complain.

Cakes. Far, far better to slightly undercook than slightly overcook. Yet most bought-in cakes tend to be dry or dryish - possibly because they photograph better.

It could be ideological or a class thing, but few people admit to eating tinned processed peas. Alas, the RRs are beyond the pale and haven't shelled a pod for decades.

Carrots add essential flavours to stews but fail the consistency test many times over. Same with turnips. Revolutionary suggestion: pick out the orange and grey slush ten minutes before serving and replace with tinned haricots.

 Are lamb chops worth the effort?

Who preheats ovens? Neff-blessed, we don't need to. But I don't think we did in the Neanderthal days.

Why did luscious brisket cost next to nothing just after the war and is now only bought by readers of The Spectator?

Lettuce 1. Crunchy or limp dark green sheets which adhere to the plate? It's trench warfare out there.

Lettuce 2. The inescapable law: all salads contain a bit more lettuce than I'm inclined to eat.

Look, I can differentiate any day between cabernet sauvignon and merlot. A far harder test is frozen fish vs. wet newspaper.

Hamburger buns in supermarkets are either too thick, too sweet, too bready or too crusty. We've given up and eat our burgers between two discs of toast. No, I don't expect you do.

Adding Lea & Perrins sauce to any food makes it taste of Lea & Perrins.
Philadelphia cheese contained in a tube of smoked salmon (from Alaska).

Most males working at a government office in Chiswick said they would prefer boiled bacon to turkey for Christmas. Price ratio: 1:8.

Monday 18 March 2013

Welcome Zach; goodbye films

ZACH stays the night while his parents abandon themselves to pleasure. He arrives with Missie, the elderly Cairn terrier whom Lucy says resembles Rosemary's Baby. Missie wanders the house expressing misery plus something else I'm unable to pin down.

Of course! That's it!

VR TAKES Zach to Hereford to buy a book which his parents say is too expensive. Aren't grandparents lovable (and subversive)? At Waterstone's VR lets Zach find the book himself while she trawls the cheap deals.

A (male) customer asks how old Zach is. Six, VR says. The man says, "Six! And he's already buying books."

Later I descend from the computer into a tranquil living room: VR prone with The Guardian, Zach head down over his new acquisition. "Me and my grandson," says VR ever-so-slightly smugly.

Last two films at film festival
I wish. If you make a wish at a point where two Japanese "bullet" (ie, TGV) trains pass each other it comes true. Eventually two groups of children, separated geographically by parental divorce, fit this project into their busy, cramped, talkative, speculative, reflective lives. Two of them, already forced into adult ways, crystallise fleeting childhood; all help create an ever-changing mosaic of modern Japan. Director Hirokazu Koreeda famed for managing child actors. I'll say.

A last quartet. New York. For forty-five minutes a good absorbing movie as members of long-established string quartet, talking persuasive musician talk, rehearse LvB's "favourite" opus 131. And react to news that one of them is succumbing to Parkinson's. Then their supposed personalities are permutated in a ludicrously confined mish-mash of bonking, betrayal, parental failure and unconvincing melodrama. Super performances from stellar cast (Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir).

Friday 15 March 2013

Movies beat being ill

Clear flowing stream turns into viscous yellow clag and we resume at the Borderline film festival. Occasional chat with other cinemagoers persuades me I no longer live in slow-moving, bucolic Herefordshire. But only briefly. Tesco antiseptic throat pastilles sucked with great application.

The Sessions. California. John Hawkes, polio sufferer, spends only four hours a day outside his iron lung, but would like to make love. Is lucky to employ wonderful Helen Hunt as sex therapist ("quite different from a prostitute"). Tone is vital for explicit sex which is well supported by brisk/witty dialogue. Hawkes gets funny, self-deprecatory lines as does large supporting cast. Good fun but everybody a bit too saintly.

Tess. Roman Polanski's version (restored) of Hardy novel filmed in beautiful Wessex (ie, Normandy with occasional architectural and other detail solecisms). Very long and needs to be to cover to-ing and fro-ing of surprisingly complex plot. Good to look at, says much about late 19th century rural life but 17-year-old Nastassia Kinski looks too fragile and (according to unconvinced VR) wooden.

The Lodger. Silent, b&w, "London fog" thriller about serial killer, directed by pre-Hollywood Hitchcock. Plot just about holds viewer but main interest is noticing tricks Hitch devises to compensate for stationary camera. Stars heart-throb Ivor Novello, victim of several remarkable sub-title double meanings. I say no more.

Wadja. Filmed in Saudi Arabia! Directed by a woman!! School-girl at strict Muslim school wants bike and contests system on its own terms in struggle to get cash. Direction penny-plain but superb performances (on both sides of religious fence) need no elaboration. Laconic dialogue. Convincing, charming, funny, heart-breaking.

Thursday 14 March 2013

A domestic Methuselah writes...

Old age is a string of clichés. I forget things, am content to look like a tramp, insult people sometimes accidentally sometimes intentionally, and there's this growing relationship with the porcelain. Now I'm getting sloppy with food.

"Wipe your face," says VR not cruelly, "there's soup on your cheek."

"It's good soup."

"Of course it is, but let that be our secret."

"We need table napkins. And a dispenser."

I had in mind one of those tightly packed chromium-plated boxes best seen in context - on the table of a US diner. (I'm a great diner enthusiast. If I won El Gordo I'd endow a diner on the Abergavenny road.) Unobtrusive, always full, a single symbol to set the sentimentality motor off and running. But alas, British catering suppliers appear to regard them as luxuries, tagging them with prices I resent.

It took lateral thinking, perhaps even a paradigm shift, for me to realise that napkins could be dispensed upwards (as it were) as well as sideways. Hence the smoked brown plastic tray you see in the larger pic. But then came the much bigger question: what kind of napkin?

Tesco cheapies could handle soup (my eating habits haven't improved) but foundered on chilli detritus, eventually turning into disgusting tomato-coloured balls. We stepped up to much thicker napkins with pleasing patterns.

But these cost more. Never mind whether we can afford it, what cannot be gainsaid is my ineradicable West Riding urge to save. If the food smears are minimal I re-use and VR doesn't approve. Ostentatiously she crumples hers and stuffs it into an empty yoghurt pot.

Old age - the tube train that's going to end up in Essex (Noo Joisey for Yanks)..

Wednesday 13 March 2013

The way to Hell... can be surprisingly comfortable

Illness prevented me (with VR) from attending film festival movies on three consecutive days. So, thirty quid down the drain.

But I don't want to write about illness, rather the response to it. On the first day I was so groggy VR said "Don't get dressed. Put on your dressing gown and stay in the warm." It was kindly meant but I think it was wrong for me, temperamentally.

My new dressing gown (see pic) is fleece-based. It not only insulates it is utterly lightweight - a very seductive garment. On my feet I wore Pop Socks, thickish knitted material with rubber bumps on the sole to ensure I can tackle steep gradients. I didn't shave and this was perhaps the most significant sign I had temporarily moved into a different world; I always shave; I hate the bristliness otherwise.

Strong wind had partially knocked over the bird table in the garden; I observed this through the French windows and let it be. Later the Wine Society delivered £250-worth of wine and I let that be too, didn't put it away. I downloaded a popular thriller - on offer at 99 p - to my Kindle and sluffed around the whole of the day. "I need this sluffing," I told myself. I tried rewriting my novel and a page took over two hours, my mind dog-paddling through porridge.

Let me repeat: this post is about the reduced standards, self-pity and defeat that arrive with invalidism. Next day I wasn't much better but I dressed and shaved. Put away the wine. Did the washing up. Became a slightly stooped but recognisable version of my rackety self. Told VR horror stories about my youth when my parents broke up.

Moral: Put your faith - if you have any - in antibiotics

Monday 11 March 2013

Cinéastes are well dispersed

In metro-centric England, Herefordshire, the county where I live, is virtually unknown. Often confused with Hertfordshire which is nearer London. Actually Herefordshire deserves to be unknown.  Total population, 183,600, is roughly that of Wigan or Crawley and population density is fourth lowest in England. One small city, four market towns, masses of tiny villages - that's it.

However, many villages have halls, hence Flix In The Sticks a scheme forming part of present film festival. Residents choose movies and foregather in the hall to watch. Halfway through there's wine, coffee, cakes and pop. Like slipping back into a 1930s whodunnit. We've trekked out to Garway
and Gorsley; Ross tomorrow. Village audiences more sophisticated than those in city; they don't titter.
Movies we saw/hoped to see at Borderlines Festival
In The House. France. Discouraged, middle-aged lycée teacher of French Lit discovers writing ability in one of his charges and devotes time to bringing him along. Gradually the lad's reportage, the reality of what he describes, and the teacher's corrections and suggestions become inseparable
and doom seems imminent. Three-dimensional performance by Fabrice Luchini - he simply is a teacher, good and bad.

The Impossible. British family, holidaying in Thailand, assaulted and dispersed by tsunami, finally fly off by chartered jet (paid for by travel insurance) to Singapore to be patched up. Supposedly true. Special effects impressive but I was never hooked. However, PB (The Guardian) cried throughout.

Anna Karenina. Keira Knightley. Too exhausted; will rent DVD.

Where do we go? Japanese. Two kids separated. Was looking forward to it but illness intervened.

Friday 8 March 2013

Minor attack of conscience

What are a blogger's responsibilities, if any?

I've been at it since May 4 2008 - say, 750 posts. Over the years I've received about half a dozen comments where the writer said he/she intended to take up something (a book, music) I'd mentioned or recommended. Very gratifying. Of course they may have been fibbing.

Recently I slagged off Quartet seen at our local film festival. Returning to the main festival cinema I found a board carrying forty post-its, mostly one word, all ecstatic about Quartet. My opinion hasn't changed about this piece of stodge but I feel I must allow mention of these views.

I was limited to two or three lines. After writing them I checked with my cinema reference, Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian. Here's his view of Quartet.

Movies we saw at Borderlines festival
Moonrise Kingdom Silly title. Two troubled twelve-year-olds, a boy and a girl, leave society behind to embrace la vie sauvage in an island off the New England coast. The first half is inventive and has its charms, but the exigencies of the plot and certain American beliefs in what is "proper" render the second half mechanistic. The director Wes Anderson, famed for his quirkiness, (eg, The Royal Tenenbaums), attracts a stellar cast, all of whom make the best of their cameos.

Amarcord Italian director Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 8½) lays aside obscurity and re-creates his childhood in the port of Rimini during Mussolini's rise to power. A vividly realised scrapbook, alternately uproarious and touching. terribly noisy and featuring a class of male teenagers capable of breaking any teacher (or parent) on God's earth. Released 1973, hasn't aged a bit.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Our mythical US home

BIG NUMBERS Our first address in the USA was 3214 Annapolis Avenue. My mother asked: are there more than three thousand houses before yours? Annapolis Ave was a mere 300 yards long, so no. A colleague explained: 3214 was a guesstimate location which presumed an imaginary 1 Annapolis Avenue at the centre of Pittsburgh.

This never sounded like an American system. French, yes. Perhaps even German. But too niggling for Americans. Also, during our six years' stay, I never found a use for this ghostly information.

Such addresses appear in Blogger's new word verification system, sometimes running to five figures (typical, I'm told, of LA).

Movies we saw at Borderlines Festival
Barbara. Absorbing, austere story involving two doctors in 1980 East Germany faced with emotional/professional dilemma.

Quartet. Dustin Hoffman's unhappy directorial debut. Broken-back plotting based on unbelievably lush home for retired musicians in UK. Waste of Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins.

The Conformist. Admirable but not lovable account of ambiguous Fascist assassin in Italy, pre- and post-WWII. Jean-Louis Trintignant superb only exceeded by Bertolucci's  inventive and visually beautiful direction. Made in 1970; some say "greatest film ever made". New to me.

Starbuck. Sperm donor hero in amusing Canadian funsie. Flirts dangerously with sentimentality but saved by French dialogue (with sub-titles).

PROGRESS Memorised 13 lines (out of 37) of Lady Percy's speech. Bath a great help.

Monday 4 March 2013

Wish you were all here

To mark the changes in the home-page graphics I am memorising LP's speech. It is 37 lines long and may take time.

Hereford's Borderlines Film Festival has just started. We are booked for twenty movies. The first, Sightseers, was inauspicious despite its ever-changing and familiar scenes (the Crich Tram Museum, Mother Shipton's Dripping Well, the Ribblehead railway viaduct). SPOILER ALERT!!! A serial killer takes his new girl-friend on a caravan trip north from Redditch. Immensely irritating.

Compare/contrast with Babette's Feast which we were seeing for the fourth or fifth time. The tears rolled down my cheeks, dried, and rolled again; I didn't dare glance at VR. In case you have been misinformed this is not a foodie's wet dream but a film about human goodness told with surpassing wit. I have pondered and I could not be friends with anyone who did not respond positively to Feast. Please, please, do not tell me if this is the case with you, dear reader.

Then along unlit, narrow, barely surfaced, country lanes, guided only by the satnav, to Garway village hall to see a masterpiece: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (five stars out of five by The Guardian).

In modern-day Turkey three cars, carrying policemen, a doctor, a public prosecutor and two suspects follow a seemingly hopeless nighttime quest, along remote wild roads, to locate a place. Nothing mystical, the concerns are obvious but the film's length (2 hr 28 min - and it's not a second too long) tells us this is no mere criminal matter. Quickly the idea that these are actors becomes ludicrous; they are as real as you or I. Procedures are botched, arguments boil up and dissipate, beauty briefly visits the mens' tired bodies. Be patient for a while; after that there are just people, small scale (but significant) events and your thoughts. 

Friday 1 March 2013

Eat your heart out Hereford

Ice Age Art (above): The swimming reindeer.

The Guardian  gave our Emerson Quartet concert (Bartok qt 3, Janacek qt 2, Berg Lyric Suite) four stars out of five and I was pleased this eggheaded programme more or less filled Queen Elizabeth Hall, also drawing a high percentage of under-forties.

P and C, with whom we were staying, live in Lewisham in south-east London. Normally we take London's motorway ring-road, M25, from which it's a 20-minute drive. Instead we plunged into London's suburbs on the western side of the capital to pass by our old house in Kingston-upon-Thames. Since I know this quadrant I tried to override the satnav but finally (for complex reasons) I gave in. Needless to say it took ages and the satnav came into its own during the final three or four miles of hilariously zig-zagged narrow streets liberally endowed with sleeping policemen (Speed bumps in the USA).

C, who paints and sculpts, had chosen the British Museum Ice Age Art exhibition the following day. A salutary display. Carvings in mammoth ivory and reindeer antler, some dating back 40,000 years, evolved from realistic renderings of, say, a bison and (my favourite) a tiny, perfectly detailed sole, into impressionistic and very beautiful shapes evocative of the female form. The mental processes on which modern painting and sculpture are based were already there and active all those years ago.

At the Courtauld two-dozen paintings by the nineteen-year-old Picasso revealed him stumbling his way through imitation, low-grade Toulouse Lautrec and ending up with a masterpiece, Girl With Dove. All in one year.

Docklands Light Railway down to Greenwich for a couple of pints at London's greatest pub, The Trafalagar*. London has it all.

*Superior to the pub on Roupell Street in only one respect - it has a view.