Books – why do you read them?

Why do you read novels?

Image result for novel reading quotes

To escape? Emotionally? Physically? Do you enjoy being transported to another destination, to a magical locale, whether real or imagined?

Or is a devious, head-scratching plot more important for you? Or perhaps you’re driven more by a story’s characters, who need to be more layered than a one-dimensional thug, or an untarnished saint?

I wrote a while ago about TripFiction, an intriguing and inspiring website recognising that books set in a location offer great holiday reading. They help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

Image result for www.tripfiction.com

(image courtesy of TripFiction)

I am honoured and excited to be helping the lovely people at TripFiction with their new #TFBookClub. The first selection has been The Little Theatre by the Sea. Written by Rosanna Ley, it transports the reader from Dorset to Sardinia.

The Little Theatre by the Sea by [Ley, Rosanna]

Rosanna has clearly carried out a huge amount of research into Sardinia, and I loved the evocative descriptions of local sights, smells and tastes, with Italian words picked out and italicised for added authenticity.  Buonissimo! It certainly brought back happy memories of our own trip there a few years ago, and I was close to booking a flight to Olbia before turning the final page.

But – and I hope Rosanna forgives me for this personal observation – I found the locations of the story more inspiring than either the plot, or the characters populating this otherwise enjoyably escapist novel.

But that’s fine. I was entertained for many hours and given a vicarious holiday, all for the price of a book. And I will really enjoy hearing the thoughts of other TF readers, and finding out what their priorities are in any book they read.

Why do you read a novel? How perfect does it have to be, to give you enjoyment on some level…..?

Image result for quotations about books

Movie review – A United Kingdom

Based on a remarkable true story, A United Kingdom opens in post-war London.

Image result for a united kingdom film

Young black African Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is coming to the end of his education, and about to be recalled to his home country – Bechuanaland, later Botswana – to rule the British Protectorate as hereditary King of nation and tribe.

But he falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund  Pike), who is from a very humble background and who is most definitely the wrong colour, alienating many in Bechuanaland and in Whitehall.

If the story told in the film is remotely close to the truth, it is yet another episode in British colonial history of which we should be ashamed. Driven by the burgeoning cold war, the new policy of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, and the possibility of finding valuable minerals in Bechaunaland, Seretse is banished by the British government from his own land, initially for 5 years and then for life.

But Ruth has remained in Africa, where she gives birth to a daughter and where she slowly wins round the local people.

The only British politician or diplomat to emerge from this shameful overbearing behaviour is a young Tony Benn, who fights Parliament for the right of Seretse to return. Newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill reneges on an earlier promise to overturn the exile, and Jack Davenport deserves credit for his reptilian portrayal of Sir Alistair Canning, a devious – though fictitious – career diplomat who thrives on wielding colonial power over subjugated nations.

Image result for sir alistair canning

The film moved me to tears. It is a powerful tale rooted in reality, and told with vivid cinematography, particularly of the African landscapes. But it is related somewhat in stark black and white tones – the evil colonial masters against the wholly good Seretse and his pale skinned wife – when I suspect there were many shades of grey in the truth of history.

Image result for a united kingdom film

No matter. Good wins out, Seretse returns to his homeland and facilitates a new democratically independent country.

And Ruth is even finally reconciled with her own family.

Image result for a united kingdom film

Partnerships – beer & cheese

I wrote a while ago about the satisfying culinary union of a ripe avocado and a few slices of salty bacon, shoved between a couple of slices of soft wholemeal bread and smeared with spicy brown sauce.

Hungry?

Like cheese? Its usual bedfellows are crackers, grapes and a decent glass of plonk, right?

Well, thanks to good friends Barry & Alex we tried out the slightly off-beat marriage between beer and cheese last Friday, in a cracking collaboration between The Hungry Guest in Petworth and the Arundel Brewery.

(image courtesy of The Hungry Guest website)

Arundel Brewery

(image courtesy of the Arundel Brewery website)

We were served 5 separate combinations of beer and cheese, with some very informative tasting notes on each pairing, and these general characteristics.

  • cut – the bitterness of hops and the carbonation in some beers will “cut through” the richer flavours and textures of cheese
  • complement – two similarly toned pairings merge together, for example poached chicken with a delicate beer, or chargrilled meat with a similarly robust ale
  • contrast – food paired with beer, whose taste notes have an opposing nature – a tart fruit beer with a rich chocolate pudding, for example

So which liaisons worked best?

My own favourite was the Smokehouse Porter (6% ABV) guzzled alongside a complementary Gruyere de Jura. Strong flavours all round – “a wonderfully rich smooth beer with subtle smokey overtones. Our friends at Besmoke (based opposite the brewery) smoked our malt over Sussex Apple Wood using their PureSmoke technology”. The smokiness of the ale definitely worked with the nuttiness of the gruyere. YUM!

Image result for arundel brewery smokehouse porter

Sounds a bit poncey? It could have been, but the whole evening was informative in a quietly understated way. No quaffing and chortling here, just some hard-working people who are clearly passionate about good, local ingredients.

Another successful combo was Big Love and Stichelton Blue Cheese. In this contrasting affair (well, they do say opposites attract) the 5.0% ABV beer, with 40 kg of fresh raspberries in the 1,800 litre brew), conjured up “a slightly tart aftertaste to the fruity ale”, and which offset the creamy full-on flavour of the exceptional blue cheese.

Image result for stichelton blue cheese from the hungry guest

Cheese & wine parties are so 1970s, darling. I’m off to Arundel to shove a load of the brewery’s interesting beers into the boot, and swinging by the temperature-controlled cheese room at The Hungry Guest in Petworth on the way back, to provide a very contemporary and artisanal beer & cheese party.

Now, shall I invite some contrasting friends…or some cutting ones?

 

Movie review – Moonlight

Did Moonlight really win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture?

Image result for moonlight

I’m sorry, but I really can’t understand why. I’m glad feel-good La La Land didn’t – despite the almighty cock-up that briefly put that movie’s hands on the gilded trophy – but I thought Manchester by the Sea was a more worthy winner. Or even Lion.

Moonlight tells the story of a young black boy growing up in a rough Miami ‘hood, with a crack-head mother, being bullied at school and slowly realising he’s gay. That’s an awful lot of politically correct boxes duly ticked, especially after the previous year’s Oscar furore at the lack of recognition for Black American and other non-white actors.

The film tracks the hard early life of Chiron in three stages: at school, as “Little”, as teenager Chiron; and – 10 years later, after imprisonment – as fully-fledged drug-dealer “Black”, relocated to Atlanta.

The boy’s mother is well played by Naomie Harris, who finally cleans up her act and asks Chiron for forgiveness.

Image result for naomie harris moonlight

The only person who really recognises how Little is suffering in his early life is Juan, brilliantly acted by Mahershala Ali, and ironically the dealer who is supplying Little’s mother.

Image result for mahershala ali moonlight

The potential for some sort of happiness out of this troubled early life comes in the shape of Kevin, an old school friend of Chiron’s, but who also played a part in him being sent to juvenile prison.

The story is sensitively told, but for me the film was too slow, the language of the street too hard to understand, and – call me superficial – but this was a couple of hours of endurance, rather than entertainment.

 

 

 

Exhibition review – Michelangelo & Sebastiano

A confession: my favoured art forms are books, theatre, films….and occasionally dance.

Not that I don’t appreciate art in its purest and most literal form, but I’m more likely to read a book to immerse myself in a cultural landscape, than rush to a city’s art gallery.

Nevertheless, I was very grateful to the lovely folks at TripFiction for passing over their invitation to the new Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery.

Detail from Sebastiano del Piombo, 'The Visitation', 1518-1519. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures (Inv. 357) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

It was a real privilege to attend the press launch, a day after Prince Charles had a private viewing but the day before the doors open to the public (March 15 to June 25, 2017). And the exhibition’s curator, Matthias Wivel, was on hand to give a level of insight not even achievable from the excellent audio guide.

The NG provides the first ever exhibition devoted to the creative partnership between Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). Some of the works on show have not previously left their own collections for centuries, so this really is a rather special display.

Sebastiano, a talented young Venetian painter, arrived in Renaissance Rome in 1511. He met the older Michelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the two artists became friends…and tactical allies against rival Raphael.

Sebastiano was the only oil painter in the Eternal City who could challenge Raphael, and was therefore the ideal collaborator for Michelangelo, who didn’t care for the medium of oil.

Sebastiano profited from his friend’s ideas, and together they created several works of great originality and rare beauty. Away from the canvass, their friendship flourished and a real bonus is the display of original letters between the two artists.

But after 25 years of artistic collaboration and personal friendship, the relationship soured so badly that arrogant Michelangelo rubbished Sebastiano’s legacy in the years following the younger man’s death.

The exhibition deftly charts their stories in 6 separate rooms, from early hope to eventual acrimony. But they left a remarkable joint legacy, and the NG has presented a dazzling portrait of both artists.

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo. Photograph: National Gallery:

Image result for the raising of lazarus sebastiano del piombo

 

Theatre review – Out of Order

Out of Order – review for Essential Surrey website

4 STARS. Ray Cooney’s Out of Order proves that farce handled properly can still make for a brilliant evening’s entertainment at the theatre, says Andrew Morris. Showing March 10-11.

Image result for Ray Cooney Out of Order

Ray Cooney has been associated with the theatre for a scarcely believable 70 years, initially as an actor but then also as a director and producer of his own trademark farces. Out of Order was first performed at the Theatre of Comedy in the 1980s. This revival will tour the country for 30 weeks. We were privileged to see it at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, on just the second day of its long run.

Farce relies on structure, confusion, mistaken identity, a little bit of potential tragedy, and perfect timing. And often adultery. And, on this occasion, a sash window.

Out of Order takes place in Suite 648 of the Westminster Hotel, a stone’s throw from the Houses Of Parliament. Which is just as well, because suave Junior Minister Richard Willey (played by local actor Andrew Hall) is about to sleep with attractive young Jane Worthington (Susie Amy) – Jeremy Corbyn’s secretary – when he should be supporting Theresa May and his own Tory party in a crucial vote.

But their adulterous passion is thwarted by the unfortunate discovery of a dead body, wedged in the sash window behind the curtains of Suite 648. What would any self-serving, quick-thinking, philandering politician do in this awkward position? Well, obviously not report anything to the hotel management or to the police. What would Mr. Willey’s wife say, after all? Or the Prime Minister?

No, the only practical solution is to call your broad-shouldered and naive Principal Private Secretary. George Pidgen (Shaun Williamson) is soon caught up in his Minister’s increasingly tangled web of deceit. The momentum of the farce increases from scene to scene, as the quick-thinking politician creates ever more imaginative lies to save his own devious skin. Nothing like real life, clearly.

The Minister’s wife Pamela (Sue Holderness) arrives unexpectedly. As does Jane’s dim husband Ronnie (Jules Brown), suspecting his wife of having an affair and looking for his missing private detective to prove it. And then Nurse Gladys Foster (Elizabeth Elvin), carer for George’s elderly mother, after hearing that the previously shy civil servant appears to have got married that day, without telling them.

All the while, the hotel manager (Arthur Bostrom) casts a superior eye over the sordid shenanigans, and the sharper-than-he-seems room service waiter (James Holmes) cleans up on tips for facilitating the mayhem.

It’s easy to be sniffy about farce, and whilst it may not match Shakespeare for dramatic depth, this production of Out of Order clearly delighted the packed Guildford audience. The updated political references were a nice touch, and the entire cast launched themselves into the chaos of the plot with the energy of a back-bencher making his maiden speech.

An unexpected appearance by Mr Cooney himself, bounding onto the stage to help out when the curtains in Suite 648 collapsed in sympathy with the sash window, was a real bonus. The French have given this famous farceur the honour of calling him Le Feydeau Anglais. A much deserved accolade. Carry on farceing for many more years please, Ray.

Image result for Ray Cooney

Book review – The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Love. Hope, Passion. Evil. Loss. Loneliness. Isolation. Displacement. Genocide. Survival.

Image result for the little red chairs

Edna O’Brien’s latest novel weaves all these disparate themes, and emotional extremes, into a story that will leave you gasping for air by the time you turn the final page. And shaking your head in disbelief at the evil man can perpetrate.

This is masterful prose from a gifted story-teller at the peak of her considerable powers, honed in 19 novels and much other garlanded literary output throughout her 86 years.

Image result for edna o'brien

The first part of The Little Red Chairs takes place in a small village in rural Ireland. A stranger arrives in this peaceful community. He is an enigmatic presence but a poet and a healer, who soon becomes an increasingly popular figure.

His name is on everybody’s lips, Dr Vlad this and Dr Vlad that. He has done wonders for people, women claiming to be rejuvenated, just after two treatments. It is tantamount to a miracle, what he has done for Hamish’s wife. 

Jack McBride is a good man, but much older than his wife. Fidelma longs for a child, to become a mother before that option is no longer available to her. She comes to know Vlad, but the consequences are a scene as shocking as I can remember reading in any work of fiction.

The second part of the story is told on a broader canvas, both geographically and in its themes. War. Genocide. The asylum process. Immigration. Revenge. These are communicated effectively by the writer, but I preferred the subtlety of quiet, brooding, parochial scenes in rural Ireland – and the difficult to endure, heart-piercing shock of the pivotal scene – to the more sweeping story that develops afterwards.

This book has been called Edna O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to read some of her other work to compare. But it is a fine novel, memorable and haunting.

Image result for the little red chairs