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Seeing the best out of 2014

December 31st, 2014 No comments

At the end of a year with even more travel than usual – Hawaii to Tahiti, out down the mouth of the Amazon, round the Mediterranean with my son Leo, and films on India and Pakistan in the autumn, let alone a great deal of time spent in Glasgow and Scotland – good to catch up on myself and the best things I came across that sustained me on the journeys:

ida-2013-003-praying-by-roadsideBest films:  In June, I stumbled into a small art-house cinema in New England on the off chance and saw the only movie that looked promising, although I’d never heard of it – Ida, by some way my film of the year for its unflinching honesty, beauty and rigour, despite what seems the unpromising scenario:  Polish girl in a 1950s convent has to decide whether she stays or she goes, not necessarily helped by her hard-drinking, hard-living aunt. A luminous film in the spirit of Bresson, and the first Paweł Pawlikowski has made in Poland rather than Britain.

It’s been a great year for strong female performances.  The best things about Mr Turner and The Theory Of Everything were not the technically accomplished portraits of their heroes by Timothy Spall and Eddie Redmayne, but the life given to the films by their screen wives, Marion Welsh and Felicity Jones, who were both superb.  Likewise, Scarlett Johansson pulled off some bold strokes in first the very enjoyable and slightly bonkers Lucy, and then the less enjoyable, but equally bonkers Under The Skin, ludicrously overrated by the Guardian as their #1 film of the year.

Both Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan produced fine films in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Interstellar, even if neither was their best, and the less said about the execrable Wolf on Wall Street the better – Scorsese been running on empty so long, the car should surely just be left in the garage.

But along with Ida, the other knockout film of the year was Boyhood, for letting us feel the director’s surprise at how lives unfold and people age.

Best books were Arundhati Roy’s rage against caste, The Doctor And The Saint;  Adam Nicolson’s passionate advocacy of Homer and the Bronze Age in The Mighty Dead;  and two work of popular history told with verve and flair – Charles Spencer on how The Killers Of The King (Charles I) were hunted down after the Restoration, and Boris Johnson on The Churchill Factor without the boring 3-volume life bits or indeed bothering with much chronology at all.

In my own field of travel books, amongst some increasingly austere and dull nature writing, one book shone out for its unaffected simplicity and grace:  Meadowland: The Private Life Of An English Field by John Lewis-Stempel.

Best exhibitions:  the British Museum’s ‘Mummy: The Inside Story’,  where they revealed the faces of those inside the mummies by using CT Scans;  ‘Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ at the Tate which proved that a big blockbuster show can still be thoughtful.

Best albums were the eponymous Ryan Adams, his best for many years and all the better for being guitar driven;  and Mark Kozalek’s remarkable Benji, in which his talent for long narrative songs about the American mid-west made him a sort of aural equivalent of Boyhood.  Kozalek (aka ‘Sun Kil Moon’) also gave the most audacious concert I saw in which he had to hire a drummer from the audience as his own had failed to turn up (and paid the replacement in cash on stage), and then asked if any women in the audience would come up and sing a duet with him on ‘I’ve Got You Babe’, at which the audience collectively sucked in their teeth at the humiliation to come, but Joanne from Glasgow gave a knockout performance.

The Buddhist Heartland of Gandhara

October 26th, 2014 1 comment

CCCC4951 Buddha head 1 Taxila Museum lo res

Seven years ago I visited the Buddhist heartland of Gandhara on my way to Afghanistan and determined I would come back one day to this part of Pakistan – and now I’ve been making a film there (one reason for the radio silence over the last couple of months as it’s been a very intensive operation and fraught with security issues).

The quality of the sculpture produced by the Indo Greek kingdoms that followed Alexander the Great’s incursions here in 326 BC is phenomenal – like this Buddhist head that I photographed in Taxila – with its mixture of classical, Persian and Indian influence.

Some of the Buddhist sculptures have been vandalised in situ and now need to be protected from Islamic extremists – or just as sadly some heads have to be removed from their torsos and taken to museums for safety, as it is usually the head that is vandalised.

We had problems filming here because some of the sites are close to nuclear and military installations so the ISI sent a heavy to follow us ‘for our own protection’.

But as a chance to spend some time around the old monasteries and stupas, it was memorable and a reminder which the world occasionally forgets that the old Indo Greek kingdoms in what is now modern Pakistan were responsible for exporting Buddhism to Tibet, China and the Far East.

 

Homage to the World Cup

June 15th, 2014 No comments

IMG_1412 boys playing football 04.

My small homage to the World Cup – and tribute to Cartier Bresson who took a series of similar pictures – is this shot I took in Fez a few years ago, and my accompanying piece for Conde Nast Traveller on ‘how to get lost there’ – always a perennial concern of mine, as anyone who has read Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico knows…..

Oxford Mayday

May 1st, 2014 No comments

SAMSUNG.

As part of an occasional series – where I get up early so you don’t have to, as in previous posts on Stonehenge solstice  etc. – a frontline report from Oxford Mayday, which by comparison was a relatively genteel affair – the only rasta locks I saw were on a security guard, one of many stopping anyone from jumping into the river off Magdalene Bridge.

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But from the moment the choir started singing from the top of the tower at 6.00 am, this had a magical quality:  green men parading, a terrific samba band up the High St and Oxford buildings looking at their most dreamy in the morning mist.  A lot of very hungover and loved up students emerged from clubs and pubs: a strange mixture of disco shorts and dishevelled black tie.  And in the middle of it all, a talented band playing mournful latin music in front of the Havana cigar shop…… what a way to wake up to spring.

 

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SAMSUNG

for those who always have to have a bike with them in Oxford

for those who always have to have a bike with them in Oxford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring: The Blue Road into the Trees

April 23rd, 2014 No comments
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bluebell woods (c) Hugh Thomson

“The bluebells in the beech woods that surrounded and disguised the embankment came as a shock.  I had forgotten that they would be there, a soft purple rather than blue, as I came in from the bright sunshine of the fields and saw waves and islands of them spreading below the trees, not so much lighting up the forest as glowing within it:  purple shadows.

They spread across the ridge.  A heavy-seeded plant, bluebells travel slowly across the ground: it had taken many, many generations for them to cover such distance.  The carpet of blue flowers managed to be a celebration both of the transience of spring and of the permanence of the English landscape.

I followed a path that was covered with beech-mast and threaded through with white wood anemones.  Looking down through the trees at the wheat fields to either side, with the young wheat still tight in bud, the stalks shimmered blue under the green of their tops, so that when viewed from certain angles they looked like water, an effect exaggerated when the wind blew across the fronds and sent a ripple of green-yellow across the underlying blue.”

a seasonal extract from The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England, which has just won the first Wainwright Prize for Nature & Travel Writing

Gabo:  The Death of Gabriel García Márquez

April 22nd, 2014 No comments

garcia marquez‘He’s won, he’s won,’ Guillo shouted excitedly.

I couldn’t think what he was talking about.  The Ecuadorian bar was filling up with excited revellers ordering brandies, even though it was only eleven in the morning.  It was 1982 and Gabriel García Márquez had just won the Nobel prize.  It had been announced on Radio Grande de Bahía, so it had to be true.  Although Colombian, the town was treating him as if he were a local boy.

My friend Guillo was impressed that he was using the money to fund his own independent newspaper:  he had read all Márquez’s books – they were piled high in the local stationery shop, along with the comics and murder stories.

And Gabo remains one of the few recent novelists to combine huge literary acclaim with matching commercial success.  When have you ever seen a Martin Amis book in a Tesco?

Márquez was writing of their world, with its perpetual llovizna, that wonderful word for a soft drizzle of rain playing over the dampness of the platanales, the banana-plantations, while the oceano nítido, the bright ocean, stood off in the distance. The predominant mood in his books was one of nostalgia, ‘tratando de recomponer con tantas astillas dispersas el espejo roto de la memoria, trying to Read more…

At The Captain’s Table

March 30th, 2014 No comments

Kindle_let us depart.inddAt The Captain’s Table:  Life on a Luxury Liner, Hugh Thomson (Kindle Singles £1.99).  Round the world the soft way. For less than the price of a cappuccino grande, a frothy confection of a travel book with double shots of autobiography and world analysis thrown in.   download it here.

I  enjoyed writing this  –  light-hearted, it involves all the classic elements of comedy: life on the high seas, some rampant snobbery and even a marriage at the end.  And I got to see a lot of intriguing places.

For those who haven’t come across Kindle Singles before, it’s an interesting Amazon initiative.  Kindle have commissioned established figures like Stephen King, Jon Krakauer and Amy Tan to write shorter, novella-length books and put them in a special branded part of the store, so readers know they’re getting something that’s met a quality control threshold – unlike the self-published parts of Kindle.  A development which may get traditional publishers very worried…

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FROM THE BLURB:  “Hugh Thomson had always wanted to travel right around the planet.  He just never had the money. Until he realised he could do it on the world’s most expensive luxury cruise.

Mischievous and entertaining, this is the first book to be written about a new phenomenon – the strange and unreported world of small luxury cruise ships, so exclusive that if you need to ask how much they cost, you probably can’t afford them.

So don’t act like the Cruise Queen Bee who, when she received her invitation to the Captain’s table, wrote back giving her apologies and explaining, ‘I cannot accept your invitation as, on principle, I never eat with the staff.’  Buy the book and take your place as Hugh serves up tales that are clear-sighted about the rich and observant of the new world opening up on our horizons, powered by a supercharged 32,000 ton luxury liner, a microcosm of 21st-century life, with its superb engineering that almost, but not quite, overcomes all the indignities the natural world can throw at it.

In Memoriam – Michael Jacobs

January 13th, 2014 1 comment

michael-jacobsDeeply saddened by news of Michael Jacobs’ sudden death a few days ago, from cancer of the kidney which was only diagnosed in September.  He was 61.

Michael was a good friend and very kind man.  A dedicated hispanophile who lived in Andalucia, he wrote many books about both Spain and South America.  For my money his very best was his last, The Robber of Memories, a quite magical account of travelling down the Magdalena river in Colombia.  I reviewed it when it came out last year:

“Subtle and precise, it may well be Jacobs’ finest work after a lifetime of studying the Hispanic world. This is travel writing at its best, with the memories a country creates about itself weaving with those of the author for a journey that pulses with an elegiac, penumbral light.”

My daughter Daisy also interviewed him for Isis Magazine at Oxford and ended her piece by saying:

“For Jacob, travelling creates memory and it is these memories that keep us alive and moving forwards.  As Jacobs says, ‘It is our memories that sustain us in later life.’ “

 He will be much missed.

PS FEBRUARY – since this was written, a fine obituary has appeared in the Independent by Barnaby Rogerson

All that glitters

October 27th, 2013 No comments

I go to see the press opening for El Dorado at the British Museum, which is excellent – one of the best curated and lit shows there of recent years.  The exhibition is careful to remind us that while the Spanish conquistadors were excited by the gold they found, even more enticing was the gold they didn’t  – and nowhere was this more embodied than in the legend of El Dorado, a myth so potent it has persisted from Sir Walter Raleigh to Walt Disney.

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The Colombian civilisations made gold offerings in liminal places – like mountains or lakes, such as the one of the El Dorado legend in which a naked gold-powdered leader offered precious jewellery into the water.  They used gold to transform themselves into otherworldly creatures with a metallic second skin, their nose pieces and earrings swinging so as to catch the light.

And the exhibition is well timed, not just because it is the first major show for many years that the British Museum has had on South America, but because our obsession with gold continues: a rise of some 1000% in its price of the last 10 years; an accompanying gold-rush in those countries like Peru whose mines have been reopened, or the Amazon panned, with devastating environmental effects like arsenic run-off. For a searing indictment of quite what this has meant on a human scale, read Marie Arana’s recent extraordinary article about the La Rinconada mine, ‘Dreaming of El Dorado’.

Salutary Salgado

August 19th, 2013 No comments

Iceberg in the Antarctic PeninsulaAlthough you can see some of this striking exhibition – a worldwide preview – on the website, while there’s still the last chance, how much better to see the photographs at the Natural History Museum in the flesh  (of which there’s plenty, as nude bodies often feature in the virgin landscapes; the penis gourds of jungle tribesmen are flourished exuberantly by their wearers.)

Sebastião  Salgado’s previous acclaimed epic projects and books include Workers and Migrations, about human displacement.

Now, for Genesis, he sets out, in what may well be a last elegiac photographic project, to document the 40% remaining of untouched planet.

What prevents this from being National Geographic writ large is the tenderness. Where Nat Geo follows Ansel Adams in presenting pin sharp images – life at f.64 – Salgado has a softer depth of field and texture to his black-and-white prints: a cloud of Antarctic petrels rise up, the mountain massif behind them a misty backdrop;  or a Yali man collect insects from a giant fern in Papua New Guinea, his skin rippled with articulated tension like the sprung branches.

The Arctic National Wildlife RefugeThe project took him so long that he started shooting on a film camera and ended on a digital one, with a lot of retouching and “painting” in the lab.  Occasionally the black-and-white can frustrate (hard to see a picture of red and green macaws without wishing for colour), but it often works beautifully, like the large egrets in the Pantanal or Disappointment River winding its way through Canada.

For a man who is seventy next year, the sheer energy of his range and travelling is impressive – from sand dunes in Algeria to some lovely wondering albatross in the South Atlantic to a herd of buffalo seen from a balloon in North America.  As a reminder of the still undiscovered or seldom visited world, it is salutary.  And if you miss the exhibition, there is always the excellent book.