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October 2012

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Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan

It will not have escaped the intrepid reader’s notice that – contrary to my previously stated intent – these posts have not of late included much in the way of updates on impending retirement, emigration to BC and so forth. The reasons for this unnatural reticence arise from what Harold Macmillan – asked what was the greatest obstacle to political achievement – famously called “Events, dear boy, events”. To this point it has not been possible to post on the subject – though I will do so in the near future. Suffice to say that all of our plans now need to be revisited.

Tomorrow Kickass Canada Girl and I fly around the world in opposite directions, meeting in Hong Kong to attend the wedding of some dear friends. The wedding is at the weekend and we are taking the opportunity to grab a little much needed rest and relaxation. I will – no doubt – regale you with photos and posts at the earliest opportunity.

In the meantime here are some more images of autumn.

 

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Every so often I feel the urge to listen to some ‘new’ music.

One of the drawbacks of growing older – at least where listening to ‘popular’ music is concerned – is that it is all too easy to lose touch with recent trends, persisting instead with that which one already knows. The reasons for this are pretty obvious. Much new music is aimed at the young – both in terms of content and in the way it is marketed. This should come as no surprise of course, since the young comprise the main market for it, but the result can be that the rest of us – and our money – are left out in the cold.

We make up for it in many cases by buying new versions (or just new copies) of the music that we listened to in our own youth. Many of us believe in any case that the music scene has steadily gone downhill since whenever that was, and that what remains is but a pale shadow of those glory years. Much recent music seems artificial – driven by the wants of TV ‘talent’ shows – and the rest has steadily become more and more self-referential (pop indeed eating itself) as the same pool of material is repeatedly re-mined, re-sampled and re-used in ever more dilute proportions. It is worryingly difficult to distinguish much sign of the creativity and imagination that pervaded the music of my youth – though it is, of course, pretty difficult to see anything at all through these rose-tinted shades!

I am – naturally – making far too much of this. There is plenty of interesting music around, but with the decline of the once accepted methods of production and dissemination – record companies, record stores, radio playlists and so forth – and the rise of the InterWebNet as a tool for publishing, acquisition and the discovery of music, it is surely much less likely that any gems out there would these days be discovered by chance.

I used to listen to music on the radio a great deal. I no longer do so, as I find most of the UK music stations pretty intolerable. I fear I have reached the age when I prefer to listen to the spoken word – or at least I prefer to listen to the BBC’s radio 4 – which is much the same thing. Oddly I find music radio in Canada to be considerably more agreeable. There seems to be less ‘ghettoisation’ of music into apparently irreconcilably disconnected genres.

Still – as I said at the very top – I felt the need to discover something with which I was not yet familiar. I knew the broad type of music that I hoped to find and – armed with a couple of suitable examples from my existing catalog – I ventured into the digital world. Now – this is something that the InterWebNet is good at, though one has (quite rightly) to work pretty hard to get the desired results. What did we do in the days before we could ask the oracle questions such as “What else is a bit like this, that I might like”?

“Cut the crap”, you say “and just tell us what you found!” Now, now – don’t be impatient…

OK – ladies and gentlemen – I give to you – the ‘Poets of the Fall’.

This Finnish band (yes, really!) – who are pretty much unknown in the UK and Canada as far as I can tell – create a splendidly melodic blend of old and new. They seem to be big in Germany and India (!) where they tour extensively, but they don’t appear as yet to have played in the UK and they have certainly not made it to Canada.

I like them. They may not be your bag, but why not give them a listen? Here are some clips:

‘Late Goodbye’

‘Sleep

‘Heal my Wounds’

Enjoy!

 

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The November edition of GQ magazine (British edition – which I purchased because it contains a number of Bond related features) details the winners of the GQ 2012 ‘Men of the Year’ awards. The Bond link is a tie-in with the (very) imminent release of the new Bond opus – ‘Skyfall’- which marks the 50th anniversary of the franchise. You can all rest safe in the knowledge that I will be returning to the subject of Bond (if not of Daniel Craig!) in the not too distant future. For now, though, I want to focus on one particular man of the year…

It is 23 years since ‘A Few Good Men’ premiered on Broadway and kick-started Aaron Sorkin’s writing career. Sorkin – who sold the film rights to the script before it had even opened – was  subsequently engaged to write the screenplay for the 1992 movie version, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination later the same year.

Sorkin’s career highlights have been rehearsed often enough that there is no need for me to repeat them here. It is a testament to his talent and longevity that adding the 2012 GQ ‘Men of the Year’ award for best writer to his trophy cabinet comes as no surprise, and indeed as something of a relief to those who hanker after the sort of high quality writing that – Stoppard and a few others excepted – seems sadly in short supply in this day and age.

For those unfamiliar with Sorkin’s oeuvre, however, I feel compelled to give just one example – from the first series of the multi-award winning ‘The West Wing’ – by way of an illustration and encouragement to all budding playwrights and screen writers.

As is the norm for ‘The West Wing’, in this episode – ‘The State Dinner’ – a number of plot threads evolve simultaneously. The main strands are as follows:

  • In the evening to come the White House is hosting a state dinner for the President of Indonesia – a regime with which the incumbent Democrat administration has a difficult relationship as a result of differences over human rights issues. This is further complicated by a personal mission on the part the administration’s Communications Director who is hoping to persuade one of the Indonesian President’s aides to help to arrange the release of a friend held as a dissident in that country.
  • There is a hostage stand-off in Idaho between the FBI and a group of white separatists over gun charges. There are women and children amongst those held captive.
  • A meeting has been arranged at the White House between the truckers’ union and the haulage bosses, in an attempt to settle an imminent and potentially damaging labour dispute.
  • A hurricane is bearing down on Georgia and is due to arrive before the day’s end with potentially devastating results.

As ever in Sorkin’s scripts the narrative development of these major issues of the day is seamlessly blended with a multitude of personal involvements, by which means the richness of each character is revealed and developed. The whole creates a multi-layered tapestry woven through with many detailed threads… much like life itself!

The underlying theme of the episode is that of the powerlessness of those in high office in the face of events. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett eventually mounts a feisty intervention in the truckers’ dispute precisely because – as the Stockard Channing’s First Lady explains to one of the other dinner guests – he is powerless to influence the Idaho hostage negotiations and he cannot stop the hurricane!

It is in the nature of such drama series that – to achieve maximum emotional or philosophical effect – each episode will most likely culminate with one of the featured storylines proving to be the ‘doozy’. Part of Sorkin’s genius lies in his adding to the impact by keeping us guessing as to which it will be. In ‘The State Dinner’ each of the themes builds inexorably to a series of climaxes, each out-doing the one before.

Finally – having been sold a dummy on hearing that the hurricane has changed course and will no longer make landfall – it is revealed instead that the naval carrier group that has previously been diverted to avoid the storm – is now directly in its path and cannot escape. Surrounded by a silent tableau of horrified aides the President tries to make radio contact with the commanders of the group – the scene rendered all the more powerful because we only see the White House end of the connection.

The radios on the carriers have been knocked out by the storm. The only contact that can be made is with a small auxiliary supply vessel, which has already been badly damaged by the huge waves. The captain has been summoned to the radio room but does not appear – leaving the President on the line to the terrified youth who is the radio operator. Knowing the inevitable fate of those concerned the President promises to stay on the line as long as it is open…

Pure class!

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For English chaps of a certain age – those who were in their mid-teens at the turn of the decade from the 60s to the 70s – memories of those inevitable teenage romantic ‘crushes’ on the unobtainable will more than likely number amongst them some such pertaining to that most English of actresses – Jenny Agutter.

I was sixteen in 1970 when Lionel Jeffries’ adaption of E. Nesbit’s classic – ‘The Railway Children’ – premiered before Christmas and I and countless others fell immediately in love with this luminous young lady. The following year’s ‘Walkabout’ (actually filmed before ‘The Railway Children’) showed us Ms Agutter in an altogether different light and we were smitten afresh – though this time in an markedly more adult manner!

‘The Railway Children’ is one of those films that I am happy to watch time and time again, admiring not just the radiant Ms Agutter but also the beautiful evocation of Haworth, the Yorkshire village whose parsonage was home to the Bronte sisters. The film’s ending still packs the same emotion punch as ever and I – naturally – still dissolve in time-honoured fashion. The film was shown again last weekend on one of the myriad Freesat stations by which we are routinely teased with the illusory prospect of there being something worth watching on TV. I stopped – I sat – I watched – I blubbed!

It was not, however, my intention that this post should be merely a eulogy for the lady. As it happened I had thought that I would catch another showing of the film a couple of months before, only to find – once so engaged – that I was watching a wholly different movie. It seems that ‘The Railway Children’ was ‘remade’ in 2000. This new version also featured Ms Agutter, but this time playing the mother of the character that she played in the original.

What interested me about the remake was that though much of the script was almost exactly as before – not surprising given that a significant proportion had been extracted directly from the dialogue of the novel – this film was no-where near as good. Familiar scenes seemed to lack the sparkle – the detail – of the original, and even Ms Agutter had lost some of the quality that shone through in Jeffries’ version. I fell to wondering why they had gone to the trouble – and expense – of remaking a film for which a perfectly good rendition already existed.

This, naturally, set me thinking about remakes in general. I know why they are made, of course – for the money! – but it seems to me a great shame to produce an inferior remake of a much loved – even iconic – film rather than trying something fresh. How many remakes can you think of that could complete with – let alone better – the originals? Yes there are a few – but then again…

Please do feel free to nominate remakes of your choosing, either as complete turkeys or – perhaps rather more rare – the occasional hit. For what its worth I consider the remake of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ to at least be able to hold up its head in the presence of the McQueen/Dunaway version, but when it comes to ‘The Italian Job’ – I shudder! What were they thinking? The original is nothing if not a tongue in cheek examination of the death of deference in the swinging sixties. The remake is – well – nothing!

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“…as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare and the shingle churned, the sea birds raced and ran upon the beaches. Then that same impulse to flight seized upon them too. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and begone; yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.”

― Daphne du Maurier, The Birds & Other Stories

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“The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.”

Carson McCullers

One of joys – amidst the many drawbacks – of accomplishing maturity (growing old!) is that afforded by the slow accretion of knowledge which – one must surely most devoutly wish – will lead eventually to the attainment of wisdom. Sometimes it seems to me that this process – as the years advance – consists in the main of going back over old ground, slowly joining up the dots and nurturing the seeds that were sown a long time ago. Perhaps one day the final thread in this immeasurable tapestry will be woven, all the connections will be made and learning will come to a full stop.

Somehow I doubt it!

What prompts this particular reverie, I hear you enquire – tentatively?

Growing up – as I did – in the 1960s there was a fair chance that I would be a fan of the Beatles. You will be unsurprised to hear that this is indeed the case, and that I count myself amongst the more partisan of enthusiasts. I have read exhaustively, viewed widely and – of course – listened relentlessly to each and every note.

There has been until recently, however, one glaring omission to my ardent pursuit – and that can be explained by the fact that even in late 1967 – as I was on the verge of recording my fourteenth birthday – my parents were still, and determinedly, resisting demands that we should acquire a television set. We were thus unable – that Boxing Day – to join the bemused multitudes who sat in stunned silence through the premiere of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour.

Such was the subsequent critical storm that the one hour film has since had very few public airings and somehow – though it has been made available on VHS and DVD – I have never really felt moved to track it down. Most likely I recoiled from the notion that my idols had after all proven to be encumbered with feet of clay.

Since then, of course, much has changed. Critical opinion now recognises the film to be a valid – if somewhat naive – adjunct to the burgeoning avant-garde that emerged from the 60s counter-culture. McCartney himself has been understandably and justifiably keen to promote the significance of his role in that movement. Further – the film itself is now seen as a precursor to the entire genre that is ‘pop video’, from which the whole MTV phenomenon and generation has since sprung. In this – as in so many things – it seems that the Beatles were after all truly ahead of the curve.

Last weekend the BBC finally broadcast a restored and digitally re-mastered version of the film – along with an accompanying documentary on its genesis – to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Beatles single, Love Me Do. It was good finally to catch up with that which I had missed back in the winter of 1967.

Viewing the film also resulted in another connection being made – another strand finally woven. I have over the last year or so been somewhat fascinated by an American alternative rock band called ‘Death Cab for Cutie’. Actually, it is really the name that fascinates; somewhat bizarre but quite imaginative. I had not, though, investigated further.

Lo and behold, as I watched Magical Mystery Tour at the weekend, what should I see – making a guest appearance – but that well-known 60s surrealist comedy ensemble, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, singing a song clearly titled – wait for it – “Death Cab for Cutie”! A little further investigation shows that Neil Innes and Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzos wrote the song for the film, taking its title from an invented pulp fiction crime magazine which had been devised by British academic Richard Hoggart as part of his 1957 study of working class culture, The Uses of Literacy. Small world!

Neil Innes, of course, went on to write and record the songs for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Vivian Stanshall – amongst many other achievements –  made an ‘appearance’ as the narrating voice on the last segment of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Back in the 80s I vaguely knew Vivian Stanshall’s then wife. She and a friend of mine were the main drivers behind a project to convert an old German coaster into a floating theatre/restaurant in Bristol docks. The ship – the Thekla – is still there, though it is now a nightclub/music venue. The ladies fell out with each other and moved on many years ago.

I recall attending the opening night party for the floating theatre – which was filmed by the BBC for a documentary on the project – back in 1982. Vivian Stanshall was present – though perhaps the less said about his presence that particular night the better!

Nice to finally tie up these loose ends. In the phrase that E. M. Forster adopted as the epigraph to Howard’s End – “Only connect”…

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“Reader, if you seek his monument – look about you”

Inscription on Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral

Each year the School – along with its sister school – celebrates its foundation and its Founder, John Colet, at a service in St Paul’s Cathedral – of which he was once Dean. This impressive logistical operation involves bus-sing the entire complement of both schools across London in time for a 2:30pm start. To my knowledge no-one has ever been late for it which – as those familiar with the London traffic will attest – is little short of a miracle.

I have always loved the cathedral and I attend the service each year simply to re-visit the building. This is all the more poignant given its romantic attachment for me and this year – as ever- I took a moment to stand directly under the dome and to lose myself to my thoughts.

Here are some snapshots:

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…and an interesting statistic!

In addition to any casual readers who may have stumbled upon these somewhat eclectic posts (Hello there – and thank you!) there is a ‘hard core’ (not sure how well that will go down…) of regular followers – or at least of those who have subscribed to receive email notifications of postings (on the assumption that these emails are not simply diverted directly and discretely into the spam folder!).

These hardy souls – numbering around 20 in all – represent some of our oldest friends, relatives and acquaintances both in the UK and in Canada – as well as from further afield! To them I say, simply – thank you.

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to make this particular connection, but the realisation came to me just the other day that – of this chosen few – no less than three of us are currently engaged in Long Distance Relationships – or LDRs, if you prefer the TLA! Now it seems to me that three out of twenty is statistically rather on the high side, which does make me ponder yet again the nature of co-incidence – on which subject I have mused previously. I have also posted before on the subject of LDRs – herehere, here and here – and I very much doubt that this will be my last word on the subject.

One could delve into the backgrounds of those concerned with a view to identifying some pre-disposition, or to look for some commonality of experience which might result in us arriving at the same place (as it were) at the same time, but in reality our reasons for being so – in terms of distance, duration and indeed intent – are sufficiently different as to render any such essay meaningless. When all’s said and done it is, most likely, ‘just one of those things’ – though so to say will doubtless offend both the logicians and enthusiasts for the scientific method.

It is really rather comforting to know others who are themselves in similar circumstances – to be able to swap notes and to compare experiences. Thanks again to you both – and good fortune for your particular journey. From our conversations I suspect that – if there is one thing that we have all discovered – it is that no matter how carefully we make our plans the trickster that is life will throw them into disarray. More on the trickster in future posts!

On the subject of Long Distance Relationships – today is Kickass Canada Girl’s birthday. It is the first of our birthdays together that has had to be celebrated by way of Skype, eCards, Amazon (CA) and the Brentwood Lodge Spa website. Whereas I am hugely grateful to the InterWebNet for making such things possible I have to say that it is a pretty poor substitute for being able to celebrate the occasion in person

I suspect I will need to make up for this ‘big-time’ – but for now…

Happy Birthday, Kickass Canada Girl!!

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