Thursday, December 31, 2015

Drawing in silver and gold - British Museum exhibition

I've spent weeks writing a review of the recent exhibition at the British Museum, Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns.  I used Sway because I've never even noticed it before.  It's very to use and I like the preview facility.

For the full review on Sway, click here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

My audio promo for SAVAGE COMPANY (available on Amazon Kindle).  Made with Audacity software and hosted by SoundCloud.  Hope it's reflective of the text!

Click here to listen.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Samuel Johnson Prize Update

The long list has now become a shortlist. The six still standing are...  The Ted Hughes biography discussed below, Steve Silberman's Neurotribes (mentioned below), The Four-Dimensional Human, in similar vein, by Laurence Scott; Landmarks - very different, about the relationship between landscape and words, by Robert Macfarlane; This Divided Island, by Samanth Subramanian, about the civil war in Sri Lanka; and The Unravelling by Emma Sky, which concerns the disaster wrought by Bush and Blair in Iraq.

Any other year and my tip would be Sri Lanka or Iraq, slightly favouring the latter because it inevitably sticks the boot in to Bush and Blair.  This year, however, I remain convinced that nothing can beat Ted Hughes.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Samuel Johnson Prize

As mentioned below, the longlist is out for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.  It's an eclectic list - everything from neurodiversity to Jack the Ripper, via Guantanamo Bay - but there is an obvious odds-on favourite in Jonathan Bate's unauthorised life of Ted Hughes.

Really, if you tried to concoct a surefire winner of the Johnson Prize, this would be it - the greatest poet of his generation, as charismatic as Byron, with a chaotic private life including, as a bonus, the feminist totem Sylvia Plath.  Not that I'm suggesting this is what Professor Bate did.  Far from it.  Bate is a major scholar who has spent years working on what was originally an authorised literary life.  At the last minute permission was withdrawn when Hughes' widow decided Bate had strayed into the off-limits private life.  Of course he did - Hughes' private life is what made him so incredibly famous and kept him in the limelight even during periods when he wasn't publishing his best material.  His private life is the subject of Birthday Letters, the last masterpiece, and is therefore unavoidable.  And of course authorisation was withdrawn by the Hughes estate.  It always is.  The women Hughes left behind are naturally protective and inevitably unpredictable - after all, they lived with Hughes.

Bate might not have engineered his book to win this award but his publishers, William Collins (who made their name publishing Byron), certainly did.  The other contenders have had their day in the spotlight and, worthy as they are, find themselves facing a juggernaut of reviews and articles hitting the media as decision-time looms.

Personally, Bate's is the book on the list I will acquire first.  That said, I will inevitably end up reading Bruce Robinson's They All Love Jack, because I am a big fan of Withail and I and a hopeless Ripperology fan.  Maybe Robinson could still emerge as an outside bet for the prize?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Prize Nominees

It's that time of year again.  The lists are out for two of the most prestigious prizes in writing, the Booker and the Samuel Johnson.

Actually, I'm not sure the Booker is as prestigious as it once was.  Now books from all over the world, but mainly America, are eligible.  Yet I can't get a Pulitzer and I don't suppose I'm eligible for prizes in Ireland, Canada, Israel or anywhere else for that matter.  Still, I suppose it's symbolic.  Mainstream publishing is pretty homogeneous, with only a half-dozen UK-based combines at most.  So why shouldn't the prize-giving be equally international and, well, bland?

This year's shortlist of six is:

  • A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, which sounds a lot more exotic than it is.  Yanagihara is actually an American writer and is about 4 New England graduates who take up worthy occupations like actor, architect, artist and lawyer.  In other words, whilst its outcomes are hopefully fresh, the premise could scarcely be any more hackneyed.
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.  A generational love story recalled on a golden afternoon in the late Fifties when all is ripe and good in America.  Yada, yada, yada.
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James - at least only tangentially American in that it mentions the CIA - is about the attempted murder of Bob Marley in Jamaica in the Seventies.  At least it sounds like something new.
  • Satin Island by Tom McCarthy is, to be fair, a proper Booker nominee.  A corporate anthropologist known only as U tries to fathom the post-capitalist dystopia.  Actually, this is one I want to read immediately.
  • The Year of the Runaways by Sanjeev Sahota is so positioned for the Booker, it even has a cover blurb by Salman Rushdie.  Indian immigrants wind up in Sheffield.  I like Indian literature.  But this does not appeal.
  • The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma may well be the favourite - a tale of growing up in Nigeria in the Nineties from an author billed as the new Chinua Achebe.  Achebe, of course, won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 for his corpus, not for any particular opus.  He left spectacularly large shoes and I don't envy any contemporary Nigerian novelists charged with filling them.

The Samuel Johnson list is discussed in my next post.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Got a little depressed last week so I took myself off to Birmingham for the afternoon. Obviously I went straight for the Art Gallery and Museum where I found, in the Gas Hall for the summer, Love is Enough, William Morris and Andy Warhol, curated by Jeremy Deller.

OK, the fathers of Arts and Crafts and Pop Art might not seem to have much in common, but then you start to think ...  They were both obsessed about printing, they both had ideas about art and factories, and they were both, in the broadest sense, radical.  Both transcended media. There the parallels pretty much end.  Morris was a posh socialist, Andy a poor Polish boy from Pittsburgh. Morris was immersed in a largely mythical medievalism in which the artisan was king.  Andy strove to push the boundaries as far they would go, turning art into process much of the time but also, to be fair, entranced by the idols of the period immediately before his heyday - Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn, the young Liz Taylor of the Forties and Fifties.

Anyway Deller has taken three or four parallels and set up rooms to illustrate them.  The rooms are all decorated with Morris wallpaper, which gives him something of a head start, but once you step back from all those flowers Andy starts to come on strong.  The huge red revolver painted after Valerie Solanas shot him, and the exquisite line drawings which I had never come across before.  Like Picasso, a single line, unadorned with shading or texture, entirely captures the subject.  But, best of all, the late self portrait ("Shadow") silkscreen print with diamond dust.  I had absolutely no idea.

I would have liked more variety and I would have liked a catalogue I could buy, but overall I came away very excited, my mood restored.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Walter Murch: On Editing | BAFTA Guru

Walter Murch: On Editing | BAFTA Guru

I love BAFTA guru.  In this particular film, I learnt that editing digital film allows you to recompose a shot where necessary.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Two new crime thrillers on TV

Two new crime series made their bow on TV last night, BBC1 premiered The Interceptor, a series i of eight, written by Tony Saint, previously known for the unforgivable Long Road to Finchley, and ITV Encore gave us the ten-part Swedish drama Jordskott, which was a considerable hit in its home country when it was shown early this year.

The Interceptor is about Ash, a HMRC agent who despairs of ever catching a major drugs baron rather than small-fry pushers and mules.  After the capture of one of the latter leads to disastrous consequences, Ash is recruited by a mysterious cross-over unit - called, hideously, UNIT - which is also after the Mr Bigs, mainly by listening in to their burner phones.

Essentially, its The Wire but lacking anything like the characterisation or internal conflict.  The conflict here is that Ash likes putting himself in danger while his wife (a thus far badly under-served Jo Joyner) laments.  That said, it motors along nicely and the casting has taken one or two risks.  Ash is a mainstream TV breakthrough for O-T Fagbenle, previously perhaps best known for Walter's War, and Ewan Stewart (also in Walter's War) seems to offer a lot of potential as the head of UNIT.  Otherwise, though, it's Lorraine Ashbourne and Paul Kaye and Trevor Eve like it always is.  Who does casting for the BBC and can they please stop?

Jordskott, on the other hand, is ITV Encore's bid for respectability.  They have spent money acquiring it and SVT spent money making it.  We don't see many Swedish TV series so it stands to reason we cannot moan about the same old faces.

Eva is a siege negotiator in Stockholm - hence the very eye-catching teaser - who has to go home to her small hometown when her father tops himself.  Papa was a local industrialist and has probably left Eva shares as well as his mansion.  But Papa and Eva hadn't spoken for years and there is a much bigger reason why Eva left - the mysterious disappearance of her daughter.  Now, coincidentally, a boy of the same age is missing.  Eva is inevitably drawn in - atypically, the local fizz don't try to exclude her.  Then, stunningly, Eva almost runs down a shabby figure by the road in the forest - and the almost-victim turns out to (possibly) be her missing daughter Josefine ... perhaps.

So we can see much more subtle forces at work than have been allowed anywhere near The Interceptor.  Every character in Jordskott is conflicted, everyone including Eva is under a level of suspicion.  We know how The Interceptor is going to pan out.  We can only guess about Jordskott.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

V & A illustration awards

The V&A Illustration Awards 2015 have been announced.  The winner for Book Illustration was Sterling Hundley for his masterly work on Treasure Island.  It didn't strike me as terribly original, though - indeed the artist himself acknowledges his debt to the classic N C Wyeth drawings of 1911. The site is full of all the entries and is well worth a look.  I have to say the ones which caught my eye were these by Mark Smith for the Folio Society edition of The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

Brilliant insight from the Paris Review into the Soviet sci-fi siblings Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.  Must get hold of some of their work.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool

I hadn't realised Tate Liverpool had an exhibition of Carrington's work.  If I had known I would have tried to get there, but the General Election and the post-election blues got in the way and there is no way I can make arrangements to get there before the show closes on May 31st.

Still, in the Internet Age we can all access a good number of images.  The above is Do You Know My Aunt Eliza from 1941.  Online, I can't tell if it is a drawing or an etching.  Certainly fine lining is involved and my guess is etching.

For those who have planned their lives better, the details are here.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Martyn Bennett (Grit) & Treacherous Orchestra (Origins)

These albums, almost ten years apart, speak to the post-millennium rebirth of the Scottish sense of national identity which led to the 2014 Referendum, the disgraceful hijacking of which by the Westminster cadre will almost certainly lead to a form of independence before 2020.

It was Bennett's album which first caught my eye.  I found a performance of 'Chanter' on the BBC iPlayer, which led me to a documentary about the making of Grit.  Bennett's story - dead at 34 and making this definitive album in the knowledge of coming death - was a massive hook.  And boy is the album worth it.  It may well be the best album I have bought in twenty years or more.  I have played it some thirty times since it arrived in February.  I love it.

'Chanter' is magnificent, but I already knew that.  Everything here is magnificent.  My favourite, at the moment, is 'Liberation', a perfect example of what Bennett does.  The basis is an archival sung version of Psalm 118 in Gaelic from 1964.  Over this is Michael Marra, speaking the Psalm in English in what must surely be the voice of an Old Testament Prophet.  And over it all, Bennett's beats, electronic and traditional, like a Hebridean Moby.  It is truly a work of genius.  In other tracks traditional unaccompanied singing is mixed all the way up to an eldritch chant from the dawn of time - in 'Nae Regrets' worked in with Piaf, and in 'Chanter' backed by (unbelievable but true) funky bagpipes.

Grit came out in 2003 (Bennett died in 2005).  Origins came in 2012 and is surely influenced by Bennett as well as by the same upsurge of Scottish spirit that inspired Bennett.  Another inspiration was the piper Gordon Duncan, who also passed away in 2005, aged 41.  Indeed the personnel of Treacherous Orchestra have come together from all strands of contemporary Scottish folk, and the result is an album that combines the rock rhythms of the 'Sausages' medley with deeper, more contemplative mood pieces such as - my favourite - 'Sea of Clouds'.  All tracks are entirely instrumental, not normally an attraction for me, but I am really do revel in the Celtic Connection idea of setting the sounds of pre-history in 21st century mode.
Treacherous Orchestra have a new album out, their second.  It's called Grind.  It's a must for me, as is Bothy Culture (1997) by the magical Bennett.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Case of the Red Monkey

To find out how the lyricist of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and "These Foolish Things" came to write a superior early Cold War thriller for TV, please visit my website.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Eichmann Show

Buried on BBC2 as “part of our Holocaust season” – what Holocaust season? – was this ninety-minute drama documentary.  There have been documentaries and dramas about the Eichmann trial (i.e. man in a Glass Booth) but not both at once so far as I am aware.  This took the slightly sideways approach of being about the broadcasting of the trial, the first global television event, the first time the general public had been able to see concentration camp survivors “recorded live”.
Martin Freeman played producer Milton Fruchtman, the American producer who persuaded the Israeli government to allow total filming.  Anthony LaPaglia played the blacklisted director Leo Hurwitz.  There were little gems of cameos from Rebecca Front as a survivor turned Jerusalem hotel-keeper and Nicholas Woodeson as an Israeli cameraman who had also been through Eichmann’s genocide system.  There was an actor playing Eichmann but I don’t know who he was because his role was to be present in the scenes that weren’t televised.  The Eichmann we saw in the courtroom and on the TV monitors was the real Eichmann in real Fruchtman/Hurwitz footage.  The same was true of those who gave evidence against him.  That was the point of this film and the main reason I found it so effective.  We weren’t looking at some English luvvie playing a Nazi with or without funny accent.  These witnesses weren’t played by some much-loved veteran of stage and screen.  Like viewers in 1961 we were looking in the face – the eyes – of the man who organised the extermination of 6 million Jews and another couple of million disabled people, Slavs and Roma.  We watched the pain and fury of people who had been in the camps.  I was truly horrified by the man who was press-ganged into burying the dead and who saw the bodies of his wife and daughter roll out of the dump truck, and the woman who had stood in a trench with the dead and the dying, naked and clutching her child, who had been shot at but who had not died.
In the control room Hurwitz is determined to keep a camera on Eichmann in the hope of seeing a reaction – guilt, amusement, anything – and the chilling thing, then and now, was that there was no reaction ever.  That was the point of the TV crew device.  They showed us the horror and revulsion that viewers at the time felt.  Freeman was good but LaPaglia was brilliant.  We spent a similar amount of time with him in close-up watching close-ups of Eichmann and LaPlagia’s eyes told us everything.  Similarly Woodeson, filming proceedings from within the courtroom walls, gave us a mini acting masterclass, trying not to faint, not to throw up, not to scream out rage.

I was shaken by this programme and I can’t remember a TV drama that effected me so deeply.  Everyone concerned deserves a hatful of awards, especially the actors named above, writer Simon Block and director Paul Andrew Williams.