Sunday, 30 December 2018

A jolly good read

Ah - the joy of books. Immersing yourself in a good read can be therapeutic. For me, the year is made up, amongst other things, of a pile of reading material. Some good, some indifferent but all of these books will attach themselves to a memory. The books that went on holiday with me, the books that accompanied me on Tube journeys in and out of London, the book I was reading when Mum died.

One name that appears several times on my 2018 list is Mick Herron. He has created a bunch of misfit characters working on the very periphery of the secret service. They are quite unlovely and yet addictive. I rooted for them in Slow Horses, cheered them on in Real Tigers and worried about them in Spook Street. There's more to come in 2019 so hurrah for that.

The scariest read of the year had to be Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Not having seen even a minute of the highly popular TV adaption, I threw myself into the book and was rewarded with a vision of chilling bleakness. It's a grim story and unnervingly believable. Equally downbeat was Charles Bukowski's tale of a man dragging himself around dead-end jobs in the USA, Factotum. You could almost smell the poverty and stale beer.

It's good to laugh though and there were giggles aplenty courtesy of two Joesph Connolly novels, Summer Things and Winter Breaks. The characters are Ayckbourn-esque and the petty snobbery of suburban life lends itself well to these stories. There were also unintentional chuckles in Georgette Heyer's hoary 1940s murder mystery A Christmas Party. This ticked all the required boxes of a mansion house killing - sour owner, flighty niece, scheming nephew and an acidic butler. He didn't do it by the way.

A slow burn of a read is also appreciated so thanks to Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13. The story follows the reactions of villagers over several years following the disappearance of a young girl. Everyone has their own take on the mystery. Many have secrets that need to be protected.

Agatha Christie featured on my list several times and one of the novels I read during the summer, The ABC Murders, was dramatised by the BBC over Christmas. The latter was a little more earthy than Christie's novel though. She didn't really 'do' sex. Death on the Nile and The Mystery of the Blue Train were also entertaining despite being the best part of eighty years old.

Other honourable mentions this year go to:

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant - tales of a post-war TB clinic

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch - what happens when the Met Police has to deal with the supernatural

Christadora by Tim Murphy - sex and drugs in Manhattan over a thirty year period

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert -  a tale of hope from Nazi-occupied Ukraine

Theft by Finding by David Sedaris - collected ramblings from the master diarist

The Shelf go the Unread still takes pride of place in one of the spare bedrooms. A wealth of loveliness waiting to be explored in 2019.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Going for a song

Here we are then, on the eve of the 63rd Eurovision Song Contest. As I type, the twenty six finalists are rehearsing their socks off in the confines of Lisbon's Altice Arena. For me, it's my fortieth consecutive contest as a viewer. Fortieth. Good heavens.

My Eurovision 'journey' - and yes, everyone has to have a 'journey' these days - began in earnest on a Saturday night in March 1979. I was mesmerised by the song contest. Not so much the songs though. Checking the running order for the show, I notice the Ghenghis Khan singalong from Germany, three people playing garden implements for Switzerland and the UK's lovely contribution, Black Lace. No, I was agog at the idea of a TV show being broadcast live from Jerusalem. I remember thinking about what it would be like to actually be there, in the International Convention Centre. What the young me could never have imagined was that exactly twenty years later, I was stood in the very same hall at the 1999 contest. The 1979 me would have been stunned.

Jerusalem 1999 was also my final contest as an accredited 'journalist'. It brought to an end six years of fun and games, schlepping between concert hall and press centre. Lots of partying and official receptions too. Full marks to the likes of Iceland who, in 1993, got everyone horribly drunk on some potent embrocation called Black Death. 'Douze points' to the 1994 Finnish delegation for saving many of us from starvation with what appeared to be a hot buffet without end. Three cheers for the Belgians who plied us with beer, the Croatians who served up cocktails in test tubes and the Slovenians who tempted us with plates of cured horse meat.

Nowadays, anyone working on the contest has to be available for two weeks. I only just about coped with seven days. It's knackering. Quite often there wasn't time to take in the sights and sounds of the host country. In Israel I made an exception. With a military guard, toting machine guns, I headed off for the Negev desert. Was it warm? Yes it was - 44 degrees. I bobbed around in the Dead Sea and shuffled around a kibbutz with the Estonian delegation. The kibbutz proved to be an eye-opener in that one of the Estonians had once lived there and had less than happy memories of the place. Which he put to the manager. The visit was brought to a swift end and we were herded out of the compound.

Since 1999 I've only been to a couple of contests. 2010 in Oslo was an odd affair in a hangar of a venue that had little atmosphere. Being part of a 20,000 strong crowd made it difficult to follow what was going on, particularly with Armenian and Azerbaijan fans trying to outdo each other with oversized flags. The 2013 event in Malmo was fun even if the entries were forgettable.

As much as I've loved traipsing across the continent over the years, currently it seems to have come full circle and once again I'm in front of the telly watching from afar. If the bookies are to be believed, we are on our way to Cyprus next year. I've always fancied Limassol in spring.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Saturday Night's Alright?

A Casualty of Saturday nights?
It was as if empires had fallen and life, as we know it, was over. There has been much hand-wringing over the past week as numerous journos feasted over the demise of ITV light entertainment juggernaut, Saturday Night Takeaway. Although we soon discovered that the entire enterprise was on a one-week hiatus whilst the team adjusted themselves to being down a presenter. On the show goes but less so, the prospect of Declan Donnelly mugging away to camera alone will no doubt see a ratings increase next week.

Saturday night telly, we were told, had died. It has ceased to exist. The real issue here though is that the whole premise of 'sit down Saturday' had withered decades ago. TV critics attempted to hark back to glorious days of yore. Days that featured the likes of 3-2-1 or Noel's House Party. Seriously? Saturday night TV has been in the doldrums for as long as most people can remember. Indeed, you have to well into middle age (box ticked there then . . .) to recall a time when the BBC, even more than ITV, got it right.

Yes, we drift back to the 1970s when the BBC were happy to kick off the evening with imperial phase Doctor Who (Tom Baker dashing through an up-and-under garage door painted silver), the Generation Game ("so what are the scores on the door Isla?"), the Two Ronnies (middle aged men in frocks) and a pot-boiler drama series such as Juliet Bravo or the more earthy American series, Cagney & Lacey (a couple of women shouting in a filthy toilet).
Scores on the doors . . .

The whole edifice of Saturday night telly crumbled with the passing of such shows and their gradual replacement with joyless offerings such as the numerous National Lottery quiz shows, the ascent of Mr Blobby or ITV's early evening filler You Bet! I was fortunate enough (hmm . . .) to be a contestant on the latter.  A lovely evening was had with the likes of Sally James and Melvyn Hayes, yet I'd not seen the show before and never tuned in again. I didn't even see the episode I featured in until some time later. I couldn't be bothered. That was the way with Saturday telly from the 1990s onwards.The Beeb realised that they could kill an hour with the soapy goings on in Casualty. Three decades of Charlie Fairhead taring into the middle distance. They couldn't be bothered either.

All Bets are off
ITV countered the BBC's lack of effort with endless casting shows. They have dominated the schedule for the best part of twenty years, whether it be Pop Idol, X Factor or the unloved The Voice. If not them, then a plethora of vehicles for Ant and Dec which is where it's all gone wrong for ITV. Too many eggs in one basket? Too much trust in the enduring popularity of a double act? With Ant now likely to be sidelined for some time, the commercial channel has a chance to maybe rethink some of their stately old shows. ITV is unlikely to ditch Britain's Got Talent or I'm a Celebrity  though and time will tell if a change of presenters will help or hinder ratings.

Will the BBC take advantage of ITV's misfortune? It's unlikely. The much-touted revamp of the Generation Game has been cut to just two episodes and there's probably not a lot to shout about until the clocks go back and the familiar staples of Doctor Who and Strictly return. ITV's schedulers are not doubt plotting as we speak.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Fully booked

Well, not exactly a vintage year for blog postings, this being the first. It's been that kind of twelve months. No random jottings about foreign visits (torrential rain in Puerto Rico, norovirus in Malta), the joys of Eurovision (a well-deseved and long-awaited victory for Portugal some 400 years after their debut) and meanderings about the state of Coronation Street can be found on the rather wonderful blog site. I did meet Jenny Bradley and Pat Phelan though so all is well with my cobbled world.

Amongst all of this frippery though is the constant stream of reading material that passes through my life. There it is, stuffed into a work bag, accompanying me on the journey to and from the City. It accompanies me on train trips to the north and flights across the world. Wherever you are, you always know where you are with a book.

There were one or two stand-out reads for me during 2017. Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North was deep and beautiful. Also up there was David Lodge's rollocking The British Museum is Falling Down, where academia and contraception collide in 1960s Britain.

Eric Ambler's anti-heroes were out in force yet again. A usual, the exotic backdrops helped the action along in Cause for Alarm and The Mask of Dimitrios. There was similar tales of derring-do from Patricia Highsmith and her classic murder novel Strangers on a Train. It was never going to end well.

Some books can leave you with a sense of disquiet and unease. Step forward Len Deighton's SS-GB, the story of what might have happened had the Nazis won the Second World War. Equally unnerving was Mark Haddon's collection of stories in The Pier Falls, most of which proved enjoyable and uncomfortable in equal measure.

I always feel dejected when a book fails to reach expectations. Luckily these were few and far between in 2017. The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark was a thankfully short read. Likewise, I was happy to turn the final page on William S. Burrough's 1985 offering, Queer, a joyless romp through Mexico with a selection of self-hating gay men. Not good.

The ladies of Tilling provided distraction in E.F. Benson's Lucia Rising and Guy Fraser-Sampson's faithful, if unofficial, end to the series, Au Reservoir. Laughs aplenty too in Bruno Vincent's re-imagining of Enid Blyton's Famous Five, including Five on Brexit Island and Five Give Up the Booze.

Other notable page-tuners this year included:

  • A Film By Spencer Ludwig by David Flusfeder - an intergenerational road trip
  • A Raging Calm by Stan Barstow - eeh it's grim up north and then some . . .
  • South of Broad by Pat Conroy - soapy yet enjoyable trip around Charleston
  • The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler - fear and resignation in 1930s Vienna
  • Enemies: A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer - life after the concentration camps

Plus, given the season, a fantastic collection of short stories from the likes of Ian Rankin and Val McDermid in Murder Under the Christmas Tree. Santa's coming for you!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Black and white and read all over - again!

Yes folks, there is no escaping the upcoming festivities. I'm knee-deep in unwritten Christmas cards, unopened online shopping orders and steely determination. One area where such determination may have wavered in 2016 is the need to read the huge pile of unread books gathering in the spare room. It's a feast without end. yet again, I will carry forward numerous tomes from one year to the next with the hope that they will sustain me on holidays, commutes into work or idle Sunday afternoons.

When it comes to reading, I don't tend to follow trends as such. Browsing the shelves of book shops, flicking through literary supplements and recommendations are what tend to steer me in every varying directions.

I always like it kick the year off with something fairly easy. Trudging through a James Joyce in January is never a good idea so I turned to Nick Hornby's Funny Girl. This was the seemingly simple tale of an unknown northern beauty queen who suddenly makes it big in a 1960s BBC sitcom. It's full of joy and optimism and delivers a 'fifty years later' chapter to round the story off well.

Three John Niven novels were devoured this year. Kill Your Friends is set against a backdrop of late nineties Britpop and the drug-fuelled excesses of the period. The humour is dark, morbid in places and yet still I laughed. Second up was The Sunshine Cruise Company, a sort of Carry On-style romp featuring OAP bank robbers. An odd premise yet strangely believable. There were more laughs courtesy of Straight White Male which served up the tears and giggles in equal measure.

It's always good to pick up a book that you've been meaning to read for years but never got around to. Step forward The Crow Road by Iain Banks. First published in 1993 and read by me twenty three years later, I initially found the dual narratives a little disconcerting. The Scottish names proved a little confusing to but I stuck with it and enjoyed Banks' examination of the deeper meaning of life. Quite funny in places too.

Not striking such a cheery note was Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Set in an alternative world where Nazi Germany and Japan had won WW2, this proved to be an unsettling read. Presumably this was the intention but it was too troubling to be enjoyable.

Veteran writer Eric Ambler provided some of the most enjoyable reads of the year. The Light of Day was all thrills and spills set against a backdrop of Istanbul. As often with Ambler, the lead character was anything but heroic. Epitaph for a Spy also featured a flawed hero plus an ensemble of characters residing at a hotel in summer. Addictive stuff!

Linda Grant served up a more feisty lead character in When I Lived in Modern Times, the story of a young woman leaving the austerity of post-war London for a new life in the fledgling state of Israel. It turned out to be not quite the anticipated land of milk and honey.

Other books enjoyed during 2016 include:

Soho by Keith Waterhouse - great characters and lots of fun
Walk the Lines by Mark Mason - the London Underground on foot!
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh - a young girl gone sour
Joy by Jonathan Lee - why did a successful woman hurl herself from a balcony?
The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate - fear and loathing at a country manor
Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon - the brutal life of a petty criminal
For the Love of Radio 4 by Caroline Hodgson - a jolly romp through the schedules

There we are then. Just some of my literary companions this year. Some were challenging, some were  just good fun but all were very welcome.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A prisoner of good fortune

Guilty pleasures. We all have them. Maybe a cheeky drink at the end of a long day, frugging around the living room to the sound of some 1980s disco or settling down to a TV treat that never fails to entertain. For me, the late 1980s through to 1997 were enlivened, television-wise, by the bottomless pit of pleasure known as Prisoner: Cell Block H. Shunted away in an 11 pm slot on ITV, PCBH became a must-see in my viewing week. Yes, I've heard all the nonsense about wobbly sets and outlandish plots but let's face it, EastEnders and Coronation Street are no strangers to the latter.

Of course, PCBH has recently had a revival and was relaunched on to an unsuspecting world in 2013 as gritty, edgy Wentworth. I love it but my fondness for the original PCBH has never waned. The show provided opportunities for many actresses who may have been consigned to 'mum', 'gran' or 'office worker' roles for years to come. Instead they were handed glorious roles - tough women with back stories and a tale to tell. Sheila Florance excelled as the wily poisoner Lizzie Birdsworth. Val Lehman ruled the roost for four hundred episodes as Top Dog and queen of the laundry press, Bea Smith and Janet Andrewartha crackled with menace as calculating Reb Keane.

A few British actresses also made the journey to the Wentworth Detention Centre including Annette Andre (of Randall & Hopkirk Deceased fame) as journalist Camilla Wells and the glorious Olivia Hamnett as psychotic doctor Kate Petersen. One actress who kicked the series off with a bang was Londoner Amanda Muggleton. She played tart-with-no-heart whatsoever, Chrissie Latham. The scorned Chrissie murdered one of the main characters early doors and wasn't seen again for several hundred episodes - but back she came. Chrissie managed to be hard-faced yet vulnerable and often lashed out when things weren't going her way. Initially an enemy of Bea Smith, Chrissie eventually learns the error of her ways, partly down to a sever bashing from corrupt officer Joan "The Freak" Ferguson.

Actress Amanda Muggleton left the series in episode 338 and Chrissie never returned. For Amanda, further success lay ahead on stage and screen. She took lead roles in Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, winning countless awards along the way. Almost forty years after that first appearance in Prisoner, Amanda found herself at the wonderful Kings Head Theatre in Islington, as star of the one-woman play The Book Club. Written by Roger Hall, the play tells the tale of Deb Martin, a woman whose husband is knee-deep in a midlife crisis. With her kids off her hands and time to kill, Deb joins a book club peopled by a bunch of eclectic women. Whether it's haughty Meredith or homely Millie, all have an opinion. Muggleton gives voice to all of them impressively and despite her being the only woman on stage, you soon find yourself engaged with a plethora of characters. She also manages to fill the entire stage, stalking each corner and addressing members of the audience like long-lost friends. It's all rather impressive. There is much joy to be had in the play, laughs a-plenty, tempered by Deb's realisation that ultimately, no good can come from the decision she's made. Acting on a lifelong ambition is sometimes not such a good idea.

Initially I wondered about the decision to stage the play in such a tiny venue as the King's Head. Some years ago I ventured to the Jermyn Street Theatre and almost projectile vomited having been placed on the front row in the firing range of scary tribute act Simply Barbra. Any lingering worries I had last night disappeared within seconds. Amanda Muggleton made this a very inclusive experience. We were part of her book club as it darted between hosts. Deb couldn't have made us feel more welcome - but I think Chrissie would have knocked her teeth out.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Moments of silence: Eurovision goes to Stockholm

It's not often that a Eurovision Song Contest related story finds its way on to the main page of the BBC News website. Last week though, they updated us with Romania's expulsion from this year's event. An exasperated European Broadcasting Union, owed millions of euros by Romanian national broadcaster TVR, decided that enough was enough. Therefore the curtain came down on the hopes and dreams of one Ovidiu Anton, the singer who was busy packing his overnight case in preparation of representing his country in Stockholm. Europe will sadly not get the chance to vote on his particular slice of musical joy called Moments of silence. Plenty of quiet time for him and Romania from hereon in.

Overall, there seems to be a very competent feel to the 2016 entries. Nothing breathtaking, no real wow moments and only one very obvious clunker. Yes, step forward San Marino with possibly the worst song in the history of Eurovision. The individual elements are heinous enough - elderly Turkish man (yes, they must have run out of local performers in the micro state), talking rather than singing his way through a song with a hopeless 1970s disco backing track. At best, it's a comedy sketch but sadly, no one is laughing.

The only 'face' - and even that's stretching it a bit - taking part is Westlife's Nicky Byrne who will be flying the flag for Ireland. Sadly he does so with Sunlight, a flimsy and inconsequential slice of froth that leaves no trace.

Eurovision is often a reflection of music from the days of yore. Georgia has wheeled out Nika Kocharov and the Young Georgian Lolitaz (there are no women in the group) who have discovered some old Oasis tracks from 1995. The song may be doomed but at least it stands out. Also flying the flag for yesteryear is Poland Michal Szpak. Color of Your Love  - and yes, Michal favours (or should that be favors) the American variant - is some big, old-fashioned late 1980s Euro ballad which goes nicely with his big, old-fashioned late 1980s hair. Austria's Zoe seems to be harkening back to mid-80s Luxembourg entries and indeed, her song is performed in French.

There is a strong band of middling entries from shouty women this year. Azerbaijan's Samra trills her way through one of those contemporary 'oh oh oh' choruses and Australia's Dami Im serves up the musical equivalent to a bread pudding - stodgy, safe and generally unrewarding. On it plods. Switzerland's Rykka sings of being The Last of Our Kind and one can only hope so as she makes three minutes feel like six.

So who can we see as a potential winner this year? The bookies are favouring Russia's Sergei Lazarov. Apparently you pronounce his name as 'Sir Gay' which is just as well as You are the One seems to be flying the flag for gentlemen who dance at the other end of the ballroom. With recent Russian entries having been booed into submission by the middle-aged Holister t-shirted crowd, Putin has obviously succumbed in 2016. Dated it may be but the Russian song could easily take the title. Also keep an eye peeled for Sweden's Frans. It's sufficiently different to their winning song of 2015 to garner another victory. The Swedes are desperate to usurp Ireland at the top of the 'most winners' table and they seem to be well on their way. Another which may do well is Serbia's oddly named Sanja Vucic ZAA. Now Sanja has obviously been plugged into an Amy Winehouse back catalogue over winter and so this comes across as more 'homage' than original. A cracking if weirdly twitchy performance from Sanja.

Their's a nod to cod-rock this year too. Montenegro's band Highway attempts to be a tad grungy and shouty but it just sounds messy. Minus One from Cyprus are a sanitised, safe rock band. Nice song but a couple of earrings and a tattoo does not a Lez Zeppelin make.

I'm pinning my few quid on the Netherlands this year. The wonderfully named Douwe Bob could be on to a winner with the soft-country, Radio 2 friendly Slow Down. Europe tends to love this genre and to be fair, it's forty one years since the Dutch last won with the lyrically lovely Ding-a-dong. I've also a fancy for the Czech Republic's entry, I Stand. OK I'm a sucker for a shouty woman with a big ballad and Gabriela Gunčíková belts this one out with gusto. As does Finland's Sandhja complete with her jolly 'we're up for a laugh' backing singers. Sing it away will open the first semi-final on May 10th and it's fun.

The UK will be hoping, probably against open, for a place on the left-hand side of the scoreboard this year. Recent entries have been a bit of a disaster. We had tremulous old Engelbert Humperdinck followed by croaking Bonnie Tyler, 'rabbit in the headlights' Molly and then last year, Electro Velvet who performed well but failed on presentation. For 2016 it's Joe and Jake. No, they're not a couple of CBBC presenters but two personable young blokes who seem to have no problem in performing You're not alone live.  This one deserves some measure of success but this is Eurovision and seemingly the UK is just there to make up the numbers these days. Still we'll raise several glasses to them - and an extra one in memory of Terry Wogan during song number nine which was when El Tel used to break open the booze. Glasses charged folks - it would be wrong not to!