Tag Archives: life

Movie review – Manchester by the Sea

I like a film that has the confidence to play its hand slowly. Very slowly. One that keeps the audience guessing, rather than ramming its plot down your throat from the opening credits.

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In the opening scenes of Manchester by the Sea we see a shell of a man. He’s a janitor, living in a single room in the basement of a block of flats in a Boston neighbourhood. He shovels snow every day. He does the plumbing. He unblocks toilets. He’s disinterested in the siren calls of two women. He drinks alone. We see a man who is both isolated and angry, going through the motions of an empty life.

It’s only in flashbacks that we come to understand the backdrop of Lee’s separation from life, and when he has to return to the workaday seaside community where he once lived, an hour or so north-east of the city.

Back for his brother’s funeral, Lee is shocked to hear that he has been made the legal guardian of his 16 year-old nephew.

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The unwanted relationship, forced on both Lee and young Patrick, is painful to watch. The confident teenager has a much fuller life than his sad uncle, but it seems that he will be forced to move to Boston with Uncle Lee.

But gradually they come to understand better each other’s difficult situation, and we also grasp the tragic reason why Lee is sleep-walking through life.

The acting is understated in the extreme. Casey Affleck, as Lee, says more with his haunted expressions than a mountain of words could ever portray. His is a performance that fully deserves the Best Actor nod. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is sensational as teenager Patrick. And Michelle Williams, Lee’s ex-wife Randi,  will break your heart all over again.

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Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is not a feel-good movie, but the quality of the writing and the acting, the beauty of the cinematography and the slowness of the hand-playing make this a cinematic joy.

Book review – In the Café of Lost Youth

This is my first post for the blog at TripFiction (many thanks for the invitation, Tina, and for the book!).

What a great website this is, combining twin JustRetiring passions of books and travel.

Books set in a location help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, novel set in Paris

You know those enigmatic, slightly pretentious French language films, with lots of silences and meaningful looks between the protagonists, played out in a smoky café on the Rive Gauche?
This book reminded me a little of one of those.
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The central human character is the young, lost soul of Jacqueline Delanque, nicknamed “Louki” by the cast of regulars at the tacky Café  Condé she wanders into one day. The louche bunch of actors, writers and poets take her under their artistic wing, without ever really knowing her past or helping her figure out her future.
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But through flashbacks and other characters – and in one of the four chapters, from Louki herself – we gradually come to understand her troubled and impoverished upbringing. She becomes known to the police, wandering the streets of Montmartre alone and too young, while her mother works at Le Moulin Rouge. Gradually she explores further afield, bumping into the drug world through a chance meeting with Jeanette Gaul, known ominously as “Death’s Head“. Louki fails in her ambition to study, when she is rejected by the esteemed Jules-Ferry lycée. She drifts into a brief, doomed marriage with Jean-Pierre Choureau, director of a real estate agency.
 
But through Roland, a lover she lives with after she walks out on Jean-Pierre one day, we sense she might finally find a little happiness.
 
Roland binds the narrative together, through his obsession with the real star of the story – Paris. He talks about the Neutral Zones: “intermediary zones existed in Paris, no-man’s-lands where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended. You enjoyed a degree of immunity there. I could have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more exact.” 
 
Louki lived with Jean-Pierre in the affluent, sterile suburb of Neuilly, where there is an inevitability that the marriage will fail. She and Roland find a temporary peace wandering the grimy streets of the neutral zones late at night, but a tragic ending to this sad, short novella comes as no surprise. 
 
You may not fully engage with the human characters of In the Café of Lost Youth, but TripFiction fans will love the book’s insight into Paris. Stroll along the sleazy side streets of la Ville Lumière, drink with the regulars at the Café Condé and share Louki and Roland’s aimless meandering through the dark underbelly of the city.
“We were wa;king without any precise aim, we had the entire night ahead of us. There were still glimmers of sunlight beneath the arcades of of rue de Rivoli. It was early summer and we were going to go away soon. Where? We didn’t yet know. Possibly to Majorca or Mexico. Perhaps to London or to Rome. The places were of no importance, they all merged together. The only purpose of our journey was to go to the heart of the summer, to where time stops and the hands of the clock are set forever at noon.”

A Day To Remember

Well, I’m glad today is nearly over….

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Leonard Cohen checks out on Remembrance Day.

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We get back from the funeral of Victor Sayer, a wonderful old friend of Gill’s, and who will be sorely missed….and find out that my dear father is in hospital again.

In the prescient words of Jools Holland and his ever brilliant Rhythm & Blues Band, who we were lucky to see in Guildford last night with good friends Chezza & Dave: Enjoy yourself….it’s later than you think.

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Book review – The Universe versus Alex Woods

Alex Woods is an unusual boy. It’s not many 10 year-olds who have survived a meteorite landing on them, after all. And who suffers from epileptic seizures. And who has a clairvoyant Mum, and no Dad.

So it’s no surprise that he’s a natural target for school bullies.

But it is a surprise when he strikes up an unusual friendship with cantankerous, reclusive old Mr Peterson. Especially as he only gets to know the old man after breaking his greenhouse.

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Gavin Extence’s debut novel is a delight from start to finish. Some of the narrative strands arguably struggle to fit together at times, but the depth of friendship this odd couple develop is beautifully observed.

What a shame then that Mr Peterson is dying. And tries to commit suicide. But it’s ok….Alex saves him.

The final third of the novel sees Alex entering into a pact with Mr Peterson, that is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming.

The author clearly did a huge amount of research into the process of assisted dying in Switzerland, that’s all I’m saying.

The book poses some fundamental questions about the right to die, the right to determine the timing of your own demise, when you’re suffering from a terminal illness that you know will render your last days painful and incapacitated.

But most of all the book is about people at very different stages in their lives, who have much to teach each other and who need each other’s support in very different ways.

Darkly humorous, educational yet entertaining, sad yet uplifting….The Universe versus Alex Woods will surprise and delight you.

Thank you, Gavin.

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RIP Johnny Barnes – Bermuda legend

I lived in Bermuda through much of the 1980s. Every day on the way in to work – wearing canary yellow shorts and long, dark blue socks as I fidgeted on the hot plastic seat of my Honda 80 cc moped – I’d pass the Crow Lane roundabout, the main access point in to Hamilton, the island’s capital.

There, happy, smiling, white-bearded Johnny Barnes would wave to everyone, so close that he would often also high five motorists, cyclists and bike riders. Every day.

He did this for more than 30 years. He became a legend, for locals and for tourists alike. A statue was erected near his waving spot.

Sadly, Mr Happy died recently, aged 93. He only stopped waving and smiling at the roundabout in December 2015.

RIP Johnny. Thanks for the memories and for the love.

Below is the full text of an obituary printed today in no less a publication than The Times. A fitting tribute.

Bermudian bus driver known as ‘Mr Happy’ who became a tourist attraction after years of cheerfully greeting the traffic.

For 30 years Johnny Barnes woke each day before 4am and walked two miles from his house to one of the busiest roundabouts in the capital where he spent several hours waving at commuters and telling them, “I love you, God loves you”.

With his white beard, arms thrown wide and broad-brimmed hat, he was familiar to most of the islanders. His large smile and cheerful greeting were infectious and he became known as “Mr Happy”.

“I enjoy making people happy,” he said. “I like to let them know that life is sweet, that it’s good to be alive.” Tourists often came to be photographed with him and a group of local businessmen erected a statue in his honour near the roundabout in 1998.

He was born John James Randolf Adolphus Mills in 1923 and raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, a sect that preaches the return of Christ to Earth. His mother often told him that — according to the children’s rhyme — as he was born on a Saturday, he would have to work hard for a living. Once she sent him to deliver a message to an elderly lady. He successfully handed it over but his mother still scolded him on his return. “I delivered it but I didn’t speak to her,” he recalled. “My mother said never, never, let no one come to her and say that I didn’t speak to them. She said I must speak to everyone.” It was a lesson that he took to heart throughout his long life.

He became an electrician on the Bermuda Railway. Later, he worked as a bus driver. Full of the joys of life — and his mother’s words — he made it a tradition to wave at passers-by from the bus depot as he ate his lunch. “If we learn how to love one another, there would be no jealousy, no anger, no envy. Everything would be just right,” he said.

Barnes married in 1949. His wife, Belvina, was also a happy woman because, as he said, he “covered her with honey” all her life. He always told visitors to their house how much he loved her. They had no children.

He became an electrician on the Bermuda Railway. Later, he worked as a bus driver. Full of the joys of life — and his mother’s words — he made it a tradition to wave at passers-by from the bus depot as he ate his lunch. “If we learn how to love one another, there would be no jealousy, no anger, no envy. Everything would be just right,” he said.

After his death his wife read out his final message: “My mind and heart would have liked to continue at the roundabout forever, sharing love, cheerfulness, happy wishes and prayers with each of you. However, our Loving Heavenly Father knows best, so He said, ‘Johnny, it is time for you to rest’.”

Johnny Barnes, Bermuda’s “Mr Happy”, was born on June 23, 1923. He died on July 9, 2016, aged 93.

59 and descending

May 10, 2016.

I’m 59 today.

A year from now, I’ll be in the 60s Zone. No longer Middle Aged, I’ll be starting the long, slow descent into Old Age. There will be no Renaissance period for me.

30 years ago, I had a Miami Vice themed 29-and-holding birthday party, in the garden of our rented Bermuda home. We were tanned, lithe-limbed, supple, sockless and solvent, the dollars flowing as freely as the rum.

Now I’m unemployed and it’s more likely to be an artisan macchiato, or a peppermint tea, than a dark-and-stormy. Joints ache, hairs sprout, pee gushes. More blustering Boris Johnson than dashing Don.

Small craters erupt on my creased face, like the foothills of Kilimanjaro on the Serengeti plain. I hope they’re not harbingers of skin cancer, often recently afflicting my family. And they didn’t even get to enjoy a few years in a sun-drenched tax haven.

So I’m going to carpe that diem like it’s never been carped before. Grasp that nettle as tightly as an expat does happy memories of 30 years past.

Time for a 59-and-clinging-on party, perhaps….

 

 

Stella

You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you pull on a favourite sweater in the bleak midwinter? Or slip into a dressing gown one size too big after a long, deep, steamy bath?

Well, have you seen Stella? You know…the gentle, warm, cuddly, funny yet poignant TV series set in the fictitious Welsh village of Pontyberry?

The final episode of the 5th series has just aired on Sky One.

Gill and I feel suitably warm and fuzzy, but also bereft that our weekly comfort blanket has been snatched from our clammy grasp. Especially as there will apparently be a hiatus before the next series.

Conceived by Ruth Jones, she plays the central character Stella Morris, a lovable, slightly overweight Welsh Mum who lurches from one doomed love affair to another. But she’s as different from Nessa – of Gavin & Stacey fame – as David Cameron is from Mr Corbyn. Clever, these actors.

The story lines are funny, sad, preposterously far-fetched and yet somehow totally believable, thanks to the quality of the acting and the always evolving panoply of whacky supporting characters. The writing is as razor sharp as the Welsh rugby team’s back line in the 1970s.

If you’ve never been lucky enough to become addicted to Stella, there are too many story threads and characters to describe here. But – and look away now if you don’t want to know the full time result – this brief summary of the final episode of the latest series should give you a good idea why we’ve fallen so deeply in love with Stella.

Michael – the Arabic-speaking lawyer who was working in London but has now set up a temporary office in the allotment shed back in Pontyberry – has agreed to marry Stella. Is this finally true love?

Rob Morgan – the smooth and successful businessman who is the father of Stella’s oldest child Luke, but who moved to Canada for years – is now back in Pontyberry because of heart problems and is still in love with Stella himself.

Beyonce – the scheming young slapper who slept with Michael one drunken night – has changed her mind about who is the father of her young baby. Michael was going to sue for custody, but is now forced to hear the results of a paternity test live on the Welsh equivalent of the Jeremy Kyle show. Sitting opposite the other contestant, the local unemployed thicko.

Emma, Stella’s daughter – I’ve lost track of who her father is  – has recently returned from India, with her happy hippy “husband” Oak, a spiritual sham. Oh, and she really did marry a local Indian lad while still at school and they had a baby girl.

Ben – the youngest of Stella’s children, from when she was married to lovable, gormless Karl – is still at school and is head-over-heels in love with the girlfriend of his best friend, Little Al. Who’s far from little.

Karl’s wife Nadine Bevan – outwardly a rouged, high-heeled air-head – is sensually awoken by newcomer Ivan Schloss, the mysterious tango-dancing, sentence-reordering, lovelorn undertaker.

And that’s barely scratched the surface of plot or characters.

The end is a beautiful mixture of elation and sadness, tugging at our emotions like the final few minutes of a tight Wales v England game at the Millennium Stadium.

Don’t leave it too long, Stella. We miss you already.

 

Microadventures

Thanks to several friends for telling me about the inspirational Alastair Humphreys, and his microadventure ideas.

As you can see from his website, Alastair is an extreme explorer. He spent 4 years cycling around the world. He ran the London Marathon in less than 3 hours. He trekked the 1,000 mile Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula.

But his concept of microadventures is for people who have full-time jobs, commute to work, have a mortgage and don’t have the luxury of being able to undertake such extreme challenges.

To quote Alastair:

Adventure is all around us, at all times. Adventure is accessible to normal people, in normal places, in short segments of time and without having to spend much money.

Adventure is only a state of mind.

That is why I came up with the idea of microadventures. Simple expeditions and challenges which are close to home, affordable and easy to organise. Ideas designed to encourage ordinary people to get Out There and Do Stuff for themselves, even in these tightened financial times.

He’s right. When I was working full-time and commuting to London, weekday evenings were invariably spent having a bite to eat, perhaps guzzling a mind-numbing glass of wine, and watching some inane TV.

You work 9 to 5…but what about your 5 to 9? 

What indeed?

I do remember something Gill and I did a few years ago, when our noses were still pressed very hard to the grindstone. At the time it was just a bit of fun, but with hindsight – and thanks to Alastair – I’ll call it a microadventure now.

We got up very early, went to the top of local beauty spot Hydon’s Ball, where we wassailed with the local Morris Men to celebrate the pagan first day of May, as the sun rose on the Surrey Hills. I got on the 7:45 to Waterloo with a little extra spring in my commuting step. And a whiff of alcohol on my breath.

But if only I’d done more. Much more.

Perhaps I’ll go back to work so that I can really embrace the concept, and think up our own microadventures before it’s too late…..

Extreme Bucket List

One of the silly little Christmas prezzies I got Gill was a pack of cards.

But not a normal deck. These cards contain a list of 500 Totally Extreme Awesome Out There & Radical Things To Do. “The ultimate list of 500 EXTREME things that just have to be done at least once. WARNING! Not for the faint-hearted.”

The original idea behind this blog was to share the spirit of a vibrant post-work life with you. With that in mind, have a crack at some of these ideas from Gill’s special cards. Some of them really are radical, extreme and out there. Gill has already done some of them. I’ve done others. Some are impossible….whatever your age. Some are just stupid.

Here are a handful to inspire/scare/appal you:

12 – hike Corsica’s GR20, Europe’s mountain trek  (we’ve done a couple of very small bits, does that count? Doing the whole thing is a real challenge, but one that was always on our list. We’re not getting any younger though….)

497 – meditate every day for a year (Gill doesn’t slow down enough to meditate for 5 minutes, so a whole year would be a real stretch)

256 – take the bullet train in Japan  (I’ve done that one – on business in the 1990s – but Gill can keep it on her list)

372 – start your own business   (Gill started and ran South Minster Kitchens for 14 years)

398 – stand in a supermarket, pretending to do market research, preferably with an accent (I like this one: fun, easily achievable….and totally humiliating. Sainsburys in Godalming, you’ve been warned)

344 – mentor a youth (do Gill’s nephew Ben and nieces Jess & Lucy count? She’s always telling them what to do. Sorry, helping to steer them in the right direction)

44 – press to impress with extreme ironing – it really is a sport (unlikely…..Gill doesn’t even know where the iron lives. That’s my job)

480 – go to a train station and take the next train to its destination (love this one too. Also, go to an airport and take the next flight out…wherever it’s going)

479 – start a religion (an interesting challenge, but dangerous. The ones we’ve got already don’t seem to co-exist very peacefully)

211 – climb Kilimanjaro  (woohooo…we’ve both done that one already. A painful tick)

154 – learn kung fu at Wudang Shan – but you have to become a monk first (I told you some of them are just ridiculous)

55 – ride on the outside of a tram in San Francisco (great excuse to book a trip to the West Coast)

345 – go to a naturist camp (no offence Gill, but if we’re doing this challenge, let’s do its sooner rather than later)

85 – climb Mount Everest (that might have stayed on the list….until a few days ago)

79 – walk hot coals in northern Greece (now this is timely….we’re going to Thessaloniki and Halkidiki in April. I think Gill should take up the challenge. Well, they are her cards)

457 – throw a tomato at an electric fan (ha! While it’s going, presumably. And preferably in someone else’s house, Gill)

OK, you get the idea. Fun, crazy, ridiculous, impossible…but also strangely inspiring. And the clock is ticking…..

Good luck, and enjoy the card game with a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other Peoples’ Lives

I used to read almost exclusively novels. Fiction. Usually contemporary. Sometimes a classic novel. Always escapism.

But something has changed in the last few years…..

It started with I’m Your Man, the mesmerising biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. I had grown to love the great man’s uniquely poetic music, but Ms Simmons gives a depth of insight into an extraordinary life that allows you to begin to understand the very human form behind the stage performer.

Artemis Cooper’s An Adventure brings depth and colour to another remarkable life. Arguably the greatest British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor was only 18 when, in 1934, he walked across Europe. In just over a year, he had traversed 9 countries and taught himself 3 languages. And that was just the beginning of a life that is so well-lived that it seems more like fiction than fact.

This Christmas, Gill has bought me Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello’s autobiography. I heard him reading excerpts on the radio a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to understanding how huge early success – and a self-confessed abuse of fame – has moulded his later years.

And I think I might have to splash out on Easily Distracted, the newly published autobiography from Steve Coogan. I admire some of his recent work – including The Trip and Philomena – but I’d like to understand how he reached this point, and how he has dealt with some of the many demons in his life.

So why the sudden interest in real people?

I think I find it humbling, as I go deep into the second half of my own life, to read what others have achieved in theirs. It certainly forces me to confront the reality that I haven’t done much of substance, relative to these well-known high-achieving personalities.

In the same way, I’m increasingly drawn to listen to Desert Island Discs, hearing Kirsty Young peel away the layers of a guest’s character and life, whether in the arts arena, business, sports, science or any other aspect of life.

I’ll continue to escape into fiction, but sometimes reality is just that little bit more incredible. For some people.