Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Black and white and read all over

It's been another year of groaning bookshelves. I recall wittering on last year about the number of unread tomes piled high in my spare room. 2015 saw me add to them. Not that I'm complaining. I love the idea of having so many to browse.

I'm a few pages away from finishing my festive read, Somerset Maugham's Christmas Holiday. Admittedly, I knew nothing about the book and it soon transpired that the story had little to do with Christmas. There's a bit of murder, a bit of finger-wagging at fascism and a gentle snigger at art snobs. Maugham wrote this in 1939 and it seems apt that I end the year with a book from that decade, given that I began it with Geoffrey Houeshold's Rogue Male. This was a tale of escape told at quite a gallop and despite the title, this bunch of rogues were often gentlemen.

The joy of any year is coming across something that has been in print for years but which you've never got around to reading. Or not as the case may be. I eagerly got stuck into Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye only to be left somewhat deflated. I didn't connect with the story at all, or with the oddly-named characters. Each chapter read like some theatrical performance and felt dated. Another which failed to hit the mark was Mike Pannett's musing on life in Yorkshire, Now Then Lad. Admittedly I grabbed this as an emergency read on Pickering railway station. Like the train I caught, the narrative ambled along without any sense of purpose. It was all bucolic mishaps and eccentric Yorkshire farmers. The only thing that resonated was the fact that I was travelling through many of the places Pannett wrote about.

The award for Bleakest Read of the Year, by a narrow margin, goes to Hubert Mingerelli's A Meal in Winter. This is a very simple tale about a group of German soldiers preparing a rudimentary meal in the depths of a Polish winter. Mingarelli manages to shock the reader in a quiet and efficient manner. The other Bleak Book was Nic Pizzolato's Galveston. Like Mingarelli, Pizzicato conjure up some wonderfully vivid landscapes. It's a collage of washed-out backdrops, cheap hotel rooms and heat-hazed beaches. This is one disturbing read.

Bobbing around in the Caribbean, I needed something much more light-hearted and so got stuck into Christopher Stephens' Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. I didn't imagine that there would  be anything new under this particular sun. How wrong I was. Using correspondence between Williams and his friends plus reactions from those mentioned in the infamous diaries, Stephens managed to add flash to the bones of the familiar Kenneth Williams saga.

I also decided to tackle Hilary Mantel this year. Not physically, obviously. Hurling her to the ground during a literary awards dinner might have seemed a little drastic. No, a chunk of the year was spent getting to know Thomas Cromwell (or should that be Cremuel?) in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both books managed to be absorbing and in places, truly shocking. The execution of Anne Boleyn was horrific. Mantel managed to make Tudor England an accessible place for the twenty first century reader.

There were a couple of excellent reads provided by Anne Tyler. She excels at the ordinary, family narrative and in particular, this was to the fore in A Spool of Blue Thread. Tyler pivots between wry humour and abject sadness but always manages not to be mawkish. As ever, I didn't want the story to end. Tyler always leaves you wanting to know what happened next.

In no particular order, other novels I trawled through in 2015 included:

Jiri Weil - Life With a Star - the grind of everyday life in Nazi-controlled Prague.
Ben Aaronovitch - Rivers of London - the occult meets the London Met!
Linda Grant - Upstairs at the Party - 1970s students and their subsequent life stories
Joseph O' Connor - The Thrill of It All - rites of passage again, this time for 80s teenagers
Patrick Gale - A Place Called Winter - Edwardian mental illness and stark Canadian landscapes
E.F. Benson - Mapp & Lucia - sweet naughtiness amongst market town snobs

Plus many, many more. As ever, I begin another year with George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier glaring at me, unread, from the bookcase. The war of attrition continues.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Teddy's Boys

So then to the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden and the Christopher Shinn play, Teddy Ferrara. As is the case with Donmar productions, less is more. No real set other than some doors, a few chairs and the odd pizza.

I knew the bare bones of this play - political activism amongst various gay students at an American college. There was the earnest one (Drew), the slightly shallow one (Gabe), the misfit one (Teddy), the unlucky-in-love wheelchair user (Jay) and the closet (Tim). In amongst these was the college's President with an eye on a senate seat, the angry salad-munching lecturer Ellen and the slightly dull Provost.

Unrequited love played its part and the underlying fickleness of all the main protagonists is what really let this play down. The entire production had the downbeat feel of one of those interminable 1990s films where the 'gay one' always dies, whether by suicide or AIDS. See Ordinary People or Longtime Companion for such misery. That's not to take away from the performances of those involved. Oliver Johnstone as Drew excelled as the serious young man maintaining his 'non-scene' stance. Ryan McParland's canker-laden Teddy made for painful viewing at times. Also a great turn from former Coronation Street actor Pamela Novete as the bitter Ellen.

The play ended with an odd scene which felt as though it had been grafted on at the last minute. It bore little relation to the rest of the story and provided no reason as to why one particular character acted the way he did. Rousing applause for the cast though, even if the audience seemed a little perplexed as it exited stage left into the wet London night.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

"And after the break . . ." Happy 60th ITV

Yes, it's time to break open the bubbly and blow up the balloons as the 'light' channel, ITV, celebrates sixty glorious years of existence. Well, maybe forty of them were glorious but let's not quibble.

Scrub that. Let's quibble. For me, the ITV of 2015 is a very different creature from the one I knew and loved in days of yore. However much I try, I feel it highly unlikely that I will ever look back on The Cube with misty-eyed fondness or hanker for the good old days of Doc Martin. Nevertheless, someone will.

For me ITV is firmly stuck in the seventies and eighties, providing a backdrop to childhood and adolescence. More so than BBC, ITV became our default channel and that meant hoovering up everything on offer from our local network, Yorkshire Television. Ah - the chevron logo, the strident brass fanfare  . . . and then something as innocuous as Farmhouse Kitchen. Forget Mary Berry - we had Dorothy Sleightholme back in the day, shuffling around her faux country kitchen, preparing Christmas puddings in September. Bless her. In fact, many ITV memories seem to stem from those illicit moments spent watching daytime telly whilst perched on the sofa 'being ill'. A sick day (or two) usually meant the appearance of the 'sickness blanket', the vomit-inducing Lucozade in a crinkly amber wrapper and several hours of ITV.

The 'For Schools and Colleges' programmes ranged from the staggeringly dull to the petrifying. Remember the eerie them tune to Picture Box accompanied by a close up of Alan Rothwell? Or the ear-piercing screech on Experiment as the narrator instructed us to 'write it down'? Things improved at lunchtime with Rainbow (camp pink hippo, nasty old Zippy and hair bear Bungle), Pipkins (camp Hartley Hare, a Brummie pig, thieving monkey) or Hickory House (Alan Rothwell again). Best of all though were the shows aimed at the seventies housefrau such as Good Afternoon. This was a cornucopia of delights as Judith Chalmers or Mary Parkinson chatted with the likes of George Melly and Katie Boyle before offering up some consumer advice. Victoria Wood mercilessly sent this format up in the 1980s. Even more engaging was Houseparty, which was basically Loose Women on soft furnishings. The show would begin with the ding-dong of a doorbell which cued Mavis Nicholson to start mentioning the word 'womb' before segueing nicely into a discussion on flapjack recipes with Elaine Grand.

ITV was also the home for the dramas we, as a family, consumed avidly. I was too young for the original airing of Upstairs Downstairs but watched the re-runs in the mid 1970s. Ditto  A Family at War with the haunting theme tune and the closing credits focusing on a sand castle on a beach bedecked with a Union Flag. We gathered at supper-time to feast on Brideshead Revisited, Born and Bred or the latest US import such as Hill Street Blues. 7.30 pm was reserved on Mondays and Wednesdays for Coronation Street, in an era where the pub and shop didn't burn down or explode with monotonous regularity. If Ena Sharples' hair-net blew off, it was the talk of the playground the next day.

And we laughed. ITV kept us in stitches with saucy yet funny sitcoms such as Man About the House, Two's Company and Rising Damp. We found endless amusement tittering at Richard Wilson in Only When I Laugh or Peggy Mount playing yet another gorgon in You're Only Young Twice. At a time when, as a ten year old, I had little idea of the concept of political correctness, I found joy in Mind Your Language. Not so funny now though.

So thank you ITV - thanks for Crown Court, for Googie Withers in Within These Walls, for Meg Mortimer singing 'We All Need a Little Christmas' on the festive Crossroads, for Susan Stranks on Magpie, for the News at 5.45 with Leonard Parkin, for Dennis Norden every Bank Holiday, for Michael Aspel, Una Stubbs and co on Give Us A Clue, for Emmerdale Farm when it just about Amos Brierley and sheep-dip, for World of Sport and the endless diving from Accapulco, for the terrifying theme tune to World in Action, for New Faces every Saturday night, for Opportunity Knocks every Monday night, for Benny Hill, for the Krypton Factor and it's assault course, for Selwyn Froggatt, for Thora Hird's In Loving Memory, for dippy World War One drama Flambards, for Sooty & Sweep (with and without Harry Corbett0, for Name That Tune, for the unfathomable clues on 3-2-1, for the old ladies forever winning power boats on  Bullseye, for Jack Hargreaves and Bunty Miller on How, for Richard Whiteley and Austin Mitchell reading the local news on Calendar. Thank you ITV for accompanying my formative years. I enjoyed them.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Where the streets have no name

Here we are then, teetering on the edge of the season of mists and mellow fruits . . . or something. The kiddies are safely ensconced in school, the summer holidays are just a memory and Downton Abbey is about to enslave our Sunday evenings for one final season.

Like many people I know, September seems to being on a rush of activities. It's the knowledge that the good weather, such as it is, is about to blow southerly and that CHRISTMAS is just around the corner. We feel the need to fill up those dark nights and chilly weekends. For me then, a splash of music, a West End play and a winter visit to Britain's most famous street. Yes, that Street. Over the past twenty five years I've made several pilgrimages to the Corrie cobbles, both old and new. Some have been as a member of tour groups and others as part of a small group. There is something thrilling yet strangely odd about shuffling around Coronation Street when there is no one else around. I half expected Rita to come bowling out of the shop or Liz to be propped up outside the Rovers having a fag break. Needless to say, I forgot that it wasn't real and began jabbering on as if the characters were. More power to the show for making me a believer.

Of course, Corrie is a world away from reality nowadays but maybe it did have more in common with the Salford backstreets when it began in 1960. Although we can't shuffle back in time to experience it ourselves, I did the next best thing last week and paid a visit to the Photographers' Gallery in London. Women and Children and Loitering Men is an exhibition of the work of Shirley Baker, Salford-born and renowned for the works she did during the 60s and 70s. Baker managed to capture the essence of the disappearing Salford. No cosy old dears with hairnets on display, rather the grim end of a way of life. At the time, Baker worried that in fifty years time, her pictures would be judged as being nostalgic or even worse, obsolete. However, it's difficult not to feel some sort of nostalgia, especially if you lived in s similar area.

The women portrayed in Baker's photographs leave the strongest impression. Sat on doorsteps chatting, each one bedecked in the aprons and 'pinnys' of that era. Even the older ladies, beyond working age, were still dressed for domestic battle. Salford is seen as an area of derelict shops, netted bay windows, waste ground and grubby kids. Rising, as the backdrop to all of this, the unloved tower blocks.

A few of Baker's photos show pubs and shops, grimly hanging on in areas where everything around them had been bulldozed. The paintwork and windows are clean, the curtains are neat and yet everything else has gone. How long would these businesses, with their hopeful, pristine exteriors, survive?

What we don't know is whether or not the inhabitants of these long-forgotten streets were happy to leave it all behind. Did they miss the outside lavs, the tin baths and the filthy back alleys? Did they pine for kitchen ranges and coal fires? Probably not but people did miss their communities and what Baker achieves is to show us the slow dismantling of such communities. The exhibition was fascinating and many of the exhibits can be seen in her book Women and Children and Loitering Men.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

We are the worst people: Songs from Europe

It's just three weeks until the delights of the Eurovision Song Contest 2015 are upon us. Well, not quite as some of the participating countries chose their entries last November. Eurovision - the gift that keeps on giving.

This year's is the sixtieth event and will be beamed to us from some anonymous looking stadium in Vienna. No doubt it will feature many familiar scenes - three presenters bellowing "Good evening Europe!" in unison. An audience of balding middle-aged men wearing unflattering Holister t-shirts. An interval act that leaves us shrugging with bemusement. A confused looking septuagenarian couple waiting for Katie Boyle to make an appearance.The usual stuff.

Given that we are celebrating sixty years of all things song contest, much of what is on offer is reminiscent of something else. For Sweden see Aviici, Belgium (Lorde), Latvia (FKA twigs) and the UK (Peters & Lee). Whereas Eurovision used to be very much a brand in its own, pleasingly naff, right, nowadays the contest is often an echo of the mainstream pop charts.

It's fair to say that some of the songs can be dismissed. Some more easily than others. In preparation for this article I plugged myself into Albania's entry, "I'm alive" sung by Elhaida Dani. I forgot every nano-second of it so listened again. Then forgot it again. No grand final for the plucky Albanians this time. We can also probably wave a less than fond farewell to Switzerland's "Time to shine". Singer Melanie  Rene may be polishing this particular turd for a while in order for it to glisten in any way at all. Portugal's Leonor Andrade managed to win her local final by failing to hit the right note for three minutes. Also seemingly doomed is Hungary's turgid plea for peace, "Wars for nothing", a song so banal that I wanted to launch a missile at it.

In years gone by many countries stuck tirelessly to long-held musical stereotypes. The Greek entries always veered towards taverna pop, Israel fielded numerous Hava Nagila/Hokey Cokey combinations and Belgium . . . well, whatever. This year it falls to Montenegro's Knez to serve up something moody and Balkan with a slightly shouty chorus and some stringed instrument gamely being plucked   in the background. It's old skool song contest and I love it.

Saccharine Disney-by-numbers ballads have featured for many years and the prime offenders this year are Spain and Russia. The Spanish entry, 'Amanecer' performed by Edurne promises much yet manages to deliver little, save for the endless utterings of 'corazon' and some drums. Russia, meanwhile, offer us blue-eyed, blonde-haired Polian Gagarina who seemingly kicks off her effort with the line "We are the worst people". Who are we to argue? No doubt there will be there traditional annual booing of the Russian entry whether it be for incursions into Ukraine (who are not participating this year) or the country's lousy record on LGBT issues. Why waste breath booing? Just stand in silence - a much weightier message. Songwise though, Russia ticks every Euro box - stomach churning lyrics, key changes, thunderous ending. Anyone fancy a trip to Socchi next year?

Russia aside, the hot favourites for 2015 appear to be Sweden, Italy and ... err, Australia! Yes, in honour of the 60th contest, the Aussies are being allowed in this year. Their entry is deceptively simple in an Olly Murrs kind of way. No clever tricks or sickly lyrics here - just a rather catchy pop tune. Guy Sebastian may just have what it takes to make "Tonight again" this year's winner. Italy has opted for popera, that rather dubious Il Divo musical pottage popular with the likes of "Britain's Got Talent" audiences. Indeed, the Italian entrants are called Il Volo and "Grande amore" is exactly what you would expect of this genre. Their biggest challenge though is from five times winners, Sweden. Måns Zelmerlöw's "Heroes" is about as relevant to the charts as a song can be and though it seems to have many detractors, the Swedish entry is the one that sounds most like a winner. Which means it will probably finish 11th.

Of the rest, you can look forward to a woman in a wedding dress and chunky headphones (Slovenia), the world's oldest looking 16 year old (Israel), two separate entries called "Warrior" (Georgia and Malta), some large specs (Cyprus), a second consecutive year of long hair and a beard (Austria) and huge cleavage (both his and hers from the Czech Republic).

As for the UK, well at least we go into the contest with singers who can perform and who are not trying to jump start a flagging career. David Mindel's "Still in love with you" will be performed by Electro Velvet, out first male/female duo since . . . well, since that year we came 26th with no points whatsoever. No chance of that happening this year though and we will steel ourselves for a possible spot on the left-hand side of the scoreboard.

Viel Glück in Wien!