Wednesday, 30 November 2011

From Russia With Love

I’ve been immersing myself in Raymond Chandler novels recently, which probably accounts for this short blog post on the story about Ekaterina Zatuliveter who proved to a tribunal that she was not a honeytrapping spy from Russia sent to access defence secrets in the UK.

This is from the end of an article in Daily Mail online:

Their (the tribunal’s) ruling states: 'The picture painted by the diary entries is inconsistent with the Security Service's assessment that she was, most likely, tasked actively to pursue the offer of a relationship with Mr Hancock.

'The most likely explanation, and one which we find to be proved on the balance of probabilities, is that, however odd it might seem, she fell for him.'

Last night security officials insisted they were not in any way 'embarrassed' by the ruling and insisted their identification of Miss Zatuliveter as a potential threat to national security was correct.

The ruling said: 'We are satisfied that it is significantly more likely than not that she was and is not a Russian agent.'

However, it added: 'We cannot exclude the possibility that we have been gulled – but, if we have been, it has been by a supremely competent and rigorously trained operative.'

Right, so: “We don’t think you’re bluffing, but if you are we’ve called you on it anyway.”

Friday, 4 November 2011

Tori Amos; Cultural Olympiad; Review Show

Back from a pre-record of the Review Show for the Premier Radio Drive Time slot due to be aired at 4pm on 14 November. This followed a morning at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane for a press conference about the Cultural Olympiad (The Guardian was concerned about the cost of free cultural events during a time of recession; The Times wanted to know more about a major art installation by the Manhattan artists' collective YesYesNo which will span the length of Hadrian's Wall and The Telegraph wondered whether actors spouting Shakespeare along the walk from Westminster to the Southbank might be a bit too much for "grumpy Londoners" to take) - and an evening at the Hammersmith Apollo being blown away by Tori Amos (Suede; A Sorta Fairytale).

On the Review Show we discussed:

1) Film: Amélie (10 year anniversary dvd)
2) Book: Just Want To Be Loved for Me.
3) CD: Kingsway triple pack.

And here is a picture from inside the Theatre Royal today:


Friday, 28 October 2011

Jack Clemo Poetry Awards

A poorly taken picture of Tony Jasper and Lady Mary Holborow at The Society of Authors yesterday:

The Arts Centre Group held their annual Jack Clemo Poetry Awards there.

Friday, 21 October 2011

House of Commons

Labour MP Meg Munn hosted an afternoon tea in celebration of the Methodist Recorder’s 150th anniversary year in the House of Commons yesterday. Here is a snap from inside Dining Room A:

Charles Dickens was writing Great Expectations and Queen Victoria was on the thrown when the first edition of the Recorder was published in 1861. After the Daily Telegraph, the paper was the oldest in Fleet Street and also one of the last to move out. The Methodist Recorder is now taking on the challenge of a digital age (I heard yesterday that its website will be revamped... soon).

Friday, 2 September 2011

Greenbelt 2011

I’ve experienced a kind of Greenbelt overload since last week. I think this is because it was the first time I'd been and also because of what I was doing there: reporting for the Methodist Recorder and compiling a podcast for Methodist Web Radio. The podcast is here and the Recorder piece will be out next week.

Here are a few photos from the festival:

The Mainstage at Greenbelt

Debate on poverty in the UK

George Luke, DJ and gig organiser for the Performance Cafe

The Performance Cafe

Writer and performer, Stella Duffy

Me in front of Mainstage in between rain showers, looking no way near as stylish as Stella.

Isreali Philharmonic Orchestra targeted by Protesters

I feel for the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra this morning after a small group of protesters wrecked their performance at The Royal Albert Hall last night. The concert had to be pulled live off air from BBC Radio 3. You can hear the protesters shouting: “Off, off, off,” on a recording featured on The Telegraph online today. What got me was that Communications Minister Ed Vaizey, who was in the audience, tweeted: “Demonstrators seemed to have turned the entire audience pro-Israel.”

I’ll say it again: Being Pro-Israel does not mean that you are anti-Palestinian or that you endorse every policy that the Israeli Government makes. I am pro-Israel. That doesn’t mean I support the denial of human rights. For all the protesters know, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra doesn’t support oppression either. And yet they get booed off the stage purely because they are Israelis. No one equates the statement: “I am pro-American” with the same logic; that is: “I support all American foreign policy.” Why does this happen with Israel? Now it seems that anyone from Israel, whether that someone be a musician, an athlete, an artist or a writer, is a controversial figure merely for being Israeli. I remember meeting a tourist from Tel Aviv in a London pub. She hadn’t said anything more than where she came from, but it was enough for a couple of people around her not to want to have anything more to do with her.

Ed Vaizey’s final tweet last night was a link to this blog post, which is worth reading.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Comprehensive Schools

Melissa Benn has written a lengthy piece in G2 today about the disparities between private and state school education in the UK. In it she quotes Tory MP Oliver Letwin who reportedly said that he would rather “beg on the street” than let his child go to a school like Lilian Baylis Technology School in Kennington. Aside from the fact that the atmosphere “could not present a greater contrast with schools such as Wellington”; that “75 per cent of the children are on free school meals” and that the school has “a far higher percentage of children with special educational needs”, we don’t learn why Oliver Letwin is so horrified. There’s no mention of the curriculum. We’re told that “successful learning" at the school depends on a “range of support and mentoring” but we are not told what they learning. Perhaps the needs of the students at Lilian Baylis mean that this school doesn’t reflect the range of subjects on offer at the average state school. What is the range of subjects on offer at the average state school? How many comprehensive schools, for example, teach French, German and Spanish? How many offer politics and economics at GCSE? Are there any state schools (excluding grammar schools) that teach Greek and Latin? Or is it that the kids who want to learn have to hope to come across books like Primo Latino in order to teach it to themselves.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Drive Time - Premier Radio

I'll be on Premier Radio today just after 4pm for the Review Show. We'll be talking about:

1) Ishmael's Songs and Hymns.
2) Soul Food For Mums - Lucinda van der Hart and Anna France-Williams.
3) Soul Survivor - live worship from Kingsway.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Nijinsky and Diaghilev

How exciting: A new play about Nijinsky and Diaghilev called Rattigan’s Nijinsky. Rattigan is said to have described the dancer and impresario as "the two most famous lovers since Romeo and Juliet”. According to the piece in yesterday's Indie, Rattigan was blackmailed by Nijinsky's widow, Romala Nikinsky, into withdrawing a screenplay commissioned by the BBC in 1974 and Nicholas Wright’s new play explores this. Journalist Paul Taylor wonders why Rattigan, who had never written openly about gay male relationships before, decided he would write about Nijinsky and Diaghilev when Romala was still alive, adding (in brackets) that “(since her husband's death, Romola had somehow managed to become both intensely homophobic and a practising lesbian)”. I wonder if Rattigan knew that (it’s not that uncommon an occurrence) and, if so, exactly what it was that he knew about her and how she would react to his script?

Sunday, 17 July 2011

La Teta Asustada

Ha qualcuno visto il film La Teta Asustada ? Non avevo mai sentito di questo film fino alla settimana scorsa quando lo vedevo in un cinema tedesco. In tedesco si chiama Eine Perle Ewigkeit ed in inglese The Milk Of Sorrow (non sono traduzioni l’uno dell’ altro).

Che fortissimo questo film. Claudia Llosa (il direttore) rende una bellezza triste di un pease che non conosco - Peru. E Magaly Solier (chi interpreta Fausta – la protagonista) e’ meravigliosa. Un film profondo. C’era una donna nel cinema che doveva uscire perche non poteva risparare bene dopo comincava la storia trista di Fausta – una ragazza che fosse nato dopo il stupro della sua mamma durante il terrismo all’inzio degli anni ottanta. Pensando di proteggersi contro lo stesso destino, Fausta porta una patata dentro il suo sesso che le causa tanti problemi medicali e psicologici. La trama del film riguarda la morta della mamma di Fausta e la determinazione di Fausta a pagare per la sua sepoltura e portarla al suo villaggio ancestrale. Fausta prende un lavoro come domestica per una pianista chi ha abbastanza soldi e abbastanza collera a gettare un pianoforte fuori della sua finestra se le cose non vanno come vuole. Quando la pianista sente Fausta cantando, le dice che possa avere una perla dalla sua collana ogni volta che canti. Ma la pianista rompa quest’ accordo con Fausta. Lei esegue una canzone di Fausta davanti un teatro pieno di gente, senza chiedando Fausta per la sua permissione. « Tutto Lima era li, » la pianista dice nel tassi dopo la rappresentazione. Fausta, viso orgoglioso, dice, « Te e’ piacuto, no?» La pianista ordina Fausta di uscire della macchina.

Da questo punto, succedono alcune cose inspiegabili.

Fausta ritorna alla casa della pianista e trova le sue parle nella sua camera di letto. Le trova per terra. Ma perche erano li ? Dove era la pianista ? E cosa succede quando la pianista vedeva che non c’erano piu’?

Dopo questo, Fausta sveine nella strada a causa della sua maladia (la patata). Il giardinere di casa della pianista (un amico di Fausta) la trova per strada. Ma come sapeva che era la? Lei stava seguendo o qualcuno gli diceva ? Una coincidenza?

Alla fine del film Fausta ha l’operazione di togliere la patata dal suo sesso e vediamola nel carro di suo zio, portando il corpo della sua mamma fuori Lima al suo paese ancestrale. Quando Fausta vede il mare nella distanza, scende dallo carro e porta il cadavere della sua mamma al di la’ del deserto verso il mare. Benche il suo cadavere sia stato imbalsamato e coperto, dovesse stato scomodissimo per Fausta a portarla cosi dopo al meno un mese di decomporre. Per me questo era la giustapposizione ultima del film – l’imagine cinematografica del deserto, del mare, di Fausta e il suo fagotto sulla sua schiena (tutto quello che porta una bellezza triste) contro la realta’ (che non spieghero’ qua ma che potresti immaginare).

Friday, 10 June 2011

Literary Cliches

Since yesterday literary clichés have been bugging me. After reading Philip Hensher in the Telegraph today and listening to Martin Amis in the Guardian Book’s podcast yesterday, it seems that writing in a straightforward fashion risks being cliché. (Martin Amis: “Whenever a novelist writes ‘she rummaged in her handbag,’ this is dead freight.” Zadie Smith’s makes the same point, which I’ll return to in a minute.)

Here is Philip Hensher in the Telegraph (tweeted today) reviewing Tea Obreht’s novel The Tigger’s Wife:
And it suffers slightly from banality in the writing. The literary novel has its own dreaded clichés by now – “These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life” – to which Ms Obreht adds universal clichés – “Dobravka was a woman possessed”. Her editor might have told her not to use the expression “I thought to myself,” too.
I wonder if it will become cliché to write, for example, that she sat down and drank a cup of coffee? It’s an activity that many people do often. How else should writers describe it? One of the reasons Stieg Larsson’s books work so well is that the picture is clear: “He put down his coffee. He got up from the chair. He opened the door. He walked down the street.” (Those are paraphrases.)

Going back to Zadie Smith and her 2007 essay "Fail Better":

“With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth. When writers admit to failures they like to admit to the smallest ones - for example, in each of my novels somebody "rummages in their purse" for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate "purse" from its old, persistent friend "rummage". To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence.”

Alternatives are not suggested. Perhaps there is a fear that they too might become clichés? The key here is “true and strange”. A writer might be describing a scene that is true and strange, but reaching for the thesaurus won’t necessarily help a writer to communicate the event’s truthfulness or strangeness. I am not arguing for novels full of aphorisms and empty clichés; I am questioning whether we will see writers dressing up scenes or ideas with fancy language.

Are we far away from reading that “he said” has become a literary cliché?

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Review

I’ll be on Premier Radio Drive Time Review today at 4pm. We’ll be reviewing:
1) Novel: Blue Freedom by Sandra Peut. (But don’t read that: read this – The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe.)

2) Album: Love Shines Through by Tim Hughes.

3) Social Media: Hisbook.

No self-help books this time. Phew.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Middle East - Objective Reporting?

Well done to the BBC for its objective reporting of the border clashes in the Middle East on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning. John Humphrys reported that there was great anger among Palestinians in the Middle East over how Israel reacted when Palestinian demonstrators massed on Israel’s borders yesterday: twelve were shot dead and many more were injured. The demonstrations were timed to mark the 63rd anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel. Some of the demonstrators crossed the border into Israel and some of the demonstrators were throwing stones. We also learned from an interview included in the BBC’s report that Lebanese forces also opened fire.

By comparison, other reports have referred only to Nakba Day with no mention Yom Ha'atzmaut.

This is the Guardian:
Demonstrators commemorating Nakba day, marking the 1948 war in which hundreds of thousands of people became refugees after being forced out of their homes, were met with live gunfire, rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas.
And here is how it should have been done (from The Times):
During protests to mark the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, described by Palestinians as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, unprecedented numbers turned out at the three hostile frontiers in scenes that quickly turned to carnage.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Gay and Lesbian Farmers

I've written an article about gay farmers for Guardian CIF. If you are a gay or lesbian farmer, you might be interested in this:
Christians are not generally known for breaking new ground when it comes to gay rights; they're usually struggling to catch up. Take a look back at this year for example: Christian B&B owners discriminating against a gay couple, Pentecostal foster parents insisting on being allowed to teach that homosexuality is morally wrong and continuing Christian resistance to gay marriage. Who would have thought that a helpline set up to support gay farmers was run by a Christian chaplain? But that's exactly what's happened.

Keith Ineson is an ex-farmer who now works as a chaplain for Churches Together in Cheshire. He extended the remit of his chaplaincy after handling more than one case of a farmer suffering from suicidal thoughts because he felt unable to come out as gay. Within six months of launching the dedicated helpline at the end of 2009, Ineson had received 52 calls – mostly from gay farmers over 50, some of whom were single, and all of whom felt imprisoned, thinking that they were the only gay farmer around. The concern is that if Ineson stopped work tomorrow, the helpline would stop with him: there is a need for Christians with rural knowledge and an understanding of gay issues to get involved in the work Keith is doing.
For the full article, see here.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Video Art

Spring is in the air:

Film theorist/artist Paul Taberham and myself captured a gorgeous April day in a short piece of video art this weekend. Stan Brakhage was a strong influence. I hope you enjoy. Double click on the image below for the full screen (otherwise you'll only see the left half of the picture):

Friday, 1 April 2011

Speaker's House and Rose Hudson-Wilkin

I was in the Speaker’s bedroom this afternoon:

There isn’t a sheet under the bedspread (maybe it’s with Sally). And it’s polyester (in case you thought it was satin).

Anyhow, the reason we were there was to hear Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the speaker’s chaplain, talk about her work. She’s the first woman - and the first black woman - to be appointed since the role was created (she’s the 79th person in post).

She talked about how she wanted to give young black people positive role models, just as she had wanted her children to see positive images of themselves when they were growing up. When her husband (a Geordie vicar) was offered a job as a priest in rural Oxfordshire some years ago, Rose personally told her husband’s boss that they weren’t able to move to rural Oxfordshire because it wasn’t a multi-ethnic area. Her husband’s boss turned around and said: “But there are lots of black people in the prisons.” I reckon that’s what Jackie Kay would call casual racism.

She also said that her work in Parliament had not stopped her being active in her church in Hackney and that when someone invites you into their home and lets you love them, then that’s a great privilege. I thought that was profound.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

Glamour icon Elizabeth Taylor is all over the press today hailed as “the last goddess” who marks the “end of an era” that will “never, ever return”.

Some great Elizabeth Taylor quotes in today’s Daily Mail.

The Today programme this morning featured Elizabeth Taylor’s co-star Angela Lansbury who said this to Sarah Montague:

“We will never, ever see those days again. The world has done a complete roundabout turn. Never, never will it be like that…
“I did like (Elizabeth) because I felt she was a good egg, do you know what I mean by that?”

Things haven’t changed so much that we don’t know what that means.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

AV Referendum on May 5th

Oh dear. This is what Ed Milliband wants us to ask ourselves on May 5th:

"Are you happy with the state of British politics? If the answer is no, then seize this opportunity for change."

This is not the question that voters are being asked.

Here is a more chilling point to consider:

“(Under an AV system) Supporters of fringe parties, such as the far-right BNP, are likely to have their second, and perhaps third, preferences counted, while those backing mainstream parties may be counted only once.
In an open letter yesterday historians warned that the proposed changes would undermine ‘the principle that each person’s vote is equal, regardless of wealth, gender, race or creed... a principle upon which reform of our parliamentary democracy still stands’.
They added: ‘For the first time in centuries we face the unfair idea that one citizen’s vote might be worth six times that of another. It will be a tragic consequence if those votes belong to supporters of extremist and non-serious parties.’

Monday, 28 February 2011

Self-Help Books

I’ll be on Premier’s Drive Time Review panel tomorrow at 3pm with George Luke and (I guess) one other person. We’ll be reviewing:

1) You Can’t Play The Game If You Don’t Know The Rules by Dr Irene Alexander.

2) Beyond The Gates of Splendor (documentary).

3) Hillsong Tour Collection (after four CDs of Hillsong, you may need to hear some minor chords).

We’re still in February and I’ve already read two self-help books this year. Help!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Luise Rainer

A wonderful interview with the gorgeous Hollywood legend, Luise Rainer, on BBC Radio 4. At the age of 101 she is the oldest living Academy Award winner. John Humphrys, on the Today programme this morning, said that she describes her friendship with Greta Garbo during the interview. She doesn’t. But what she does do is talk about Garbo as a kind of concept.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Lost Daphne du Maurier story found after 70 years

I love stories like this one: a literary gem unearthed after so many years. Over the past year I have been collecting newspaper cuttings of similar stories: an 1848 Emily Bronte letter going on display at the Parsonage Museum in Haworth; letters by Ted Hughes being bought by the British Library; a postcard written by a Titanic passenger auctioned at Henry Aldridge and Son; etc. I imagine it was just as thrilling for Ann Willmore to find the lost Daphne du Maurier story in an online publication as it would have been for her to find it in a cemetery of forgotten books.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Love Letters

A sub editor has asked, “Have we lost the art of writing love letters?” in today’s Independent. If the headline had been, “Why we ditched the art of writing love letters” then John Walsh’s piece provides an explaination:

Another favourite approach was the whine of masochism, as the lover suffers torments that his lady love may leave him, and receiving her letters becomes a form of torture. As Denis Diderot, the French encyclopaedia compiler, pointed out in his letter to Sophie Volland in 1759: "How impatiently I waited for it! I am sure my hands trembled when opening it. My countenance changed; my voice altered; and unless he were a fool, he who handed it to me would have said – 'That man receives news from his father or mother, or someone else he loves.' I was just at that minute about to send you a letter expressing my great uneasiness. While you are amusing yourself, you forget how much my heart suffers."

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Diana Souhami on Edith Cavell

Whitbread award-winning writer Diana Souhami talked to me about her latest book on Edith Cavell for a podcast that you can listen to here.

Edith Cavell got around. The French singer Edith Piaf was named after her, as was a car park in Peterborough, a bridge over the Shotover River near Queenstown and a feature on the planet Venus. I wonder if anyone has ever confused Edith Cavell with Mata Hari? Hmm. Probably not.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Secret of Chanel Number Five

Review of Tilar J. Mazzeo's book - The Secret of Chanel Number Five - posted on the U.S. version of Amazon:

An ancient Medici manuscript, the Knights Templar, a fortune teller and the coveted jasmine of Grasse - Tilar Mazzeo's fascinating biography of a western cultural monument weaves the threads together in the tableau behind The Secret of Chanel Number Five. And it is an incredible story. The careful balance of two fragrances - jasmine and aldehydes - inside bottles shaped like whisky flasks has endured its creator's anti-semiticism, seen American Second World War soldiers queuing up for sales in the snow along the icy rue Cambon and survived a series of dangerous gambles by the Wertheimer brothers who owned 70 per cent of Les Parfums Chanel in 1940 and who fled to New York just in time.

There's movie material here. When Chanel was arrested in her hotel room at The Ritz after the war as a suspected collabo, it was Churchill (so one rumour goes) who negotiated her freedom: "A decade later, people in Paris also speculated that Churchill - Coco Chanel's next-door neighbour during summers on the Riviera - had sent a chauffeured limousine to police headquarters personally to fetch her, and the driver headed straight for the Swiss border." It's also believed that Chanel's fascist lover, Hans Guenther von Dincklage, was in that car with her.

How Chanel Number Five came into being is just as intriguing. Even if Coco's purchase of Marie de Medici's "cologne" manuscript did not directly lead to the perfume's creation, it was a crucial preliminary stage. The history of perfume-making in France began during the reign of Catherine de Medici in the sixteenth century. Reading this, I wondered how much of an influence Henri II's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, might have had on Chanel's fashion designs given that Henri II's older lover was famous for her black and white simplicity.

Read this book for the lively style, for the facts you haven't yet seen in the Coco movies and for an insight into why Chanel Number Five has seduced so many women for so many years.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Drive Time

I am going to be on Premier Radio's Drive Time review panel today. I think I’ll be on with Nick Battle and The Watchman. We’ll be talking about:

Miss HIV

Things I Wish I'd Known Before We Got Married

The Lion Book of 1000 Prayers for Children

The last time I was on Premier's Drive Time I went in with the intention of talking about Lisbeth Salander’s work ethic (in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) in relation to Ian Coffey’s philosophy in his self-help book Working It Out: God, You and The Work You Do. But in the end I spared everyone.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Pumeza Matshikiza

Pumeza Matshikiza is wonderful. Missed her at the Samling Showcase at Wigmore Hall on December 10... but Sarah-Jane Brandon was very was Sir Thomas Allen...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Black Swan

Tamara Rojo, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, has given a cutting review of Natalie Portman in Black Swan in today’s Guardian. She wants to know why they didn’t use a professional dancer for the role. But then Elena Glurdjidze, principal dancer with English National Ballet, seems to think that Natalie had a body double and it was hard to tell when she was being used...

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Jason Wallace Wins Costa Literary Award

Now here is someone who won't take “no” for an answer: writer Jason Wallace finally got his novel recognised after being turned down by ONE HUNDRED literary agents. One hundred! He could use those rejection letters as wall paper. Amazing. I think I am going to cut out that article and stick it on the wall - or keep it filed away somewhere at least.