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Best of 2018

December 31st, 2018 No comments

This has been a wonderful year for me in every way – and here are some of my best things from it:

Music

 My favourite album didn’t make any of  Top 50 lists in the magazines – Bennett Wilson Poole’s eponymous debut was a fabulous slice of Americana with Byrds style guitars – all the more unusual for being produced by three old geezers from Oxford (including Danny Wilson from Danny and the Champions) – great songs and they know how to play live as well, as we saw them at Kings Place in London.  Also loved Spiritualized’s new offering And Nothing Hurt (anything Jason Pearce does is always worth a listen, and they are another band who play a blinder live). Talking of live performances, I enjoyed David Byrne’s renaissance, and although there are some filler tracks on his new album, ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’ is certainly single of the year.

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Film

‘Emma Get Your Gun’ – The Favourite

The best film of the year only just makes it in time – The Favourite deserves all the accolades currently being showered on it, as it’s funny, inventive, raucous, rude and witty: all the qualities I like in a movie. While Roma was also superb.

Best documentary in another strong year for my favourite genre was the extraordinary Three Identical Strangers, a labour of love and one of the few that had the legs – well three pairs of them – to go to the full feature length. And both The Rider and American Animals blurred the line between documentary and fiction to great effect.

Books

I have personal reasons for liking If Not Critical by the late great Eric Griffiths – see an earlier post – and Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God by Tony Hoagland who also died this year and was to my mind the most wonderful American poet.

But mostly I’ve been reading old classics, from Ian Fleming’s muscular Moonraker – so much better than the piss poor film – to Graham Greene’s Quiet American and Robert Pinsky’s tremendous translation of Dante’s Inferno, the best of the considerable pack.

And the very best wishes for 2019 to all my discerning readers.

Once In A Lifetime: Eric Griffiths (1953 –2018)

November 9th, 2018 3 comments

I was one of Eric Griffiths’ first students at Trinity, back in 1980. I remember the excitement at the prospect of a very young new English fellow arriving. He was known to be brilliant and a protégé of Christopher Ricks, with a slightly dark reputation for having a wild side.

He certainly enjoyed being a Cambridge maverick. But he did also prove an extraordinary brilliant teacher and this of course is his true legacy.

A sometimes partial one – he could be unfair to those he excluded from his circle and I will always remember the shocked tones with which he once told me a student was doing a thesis on Tolkien – but if he engaged with you, it was a life transforming experience.

For Eric, the study of English literature mattered: in a heuristic way, in a way that constantly questioned one’s own responses and assumptions, in a way that affirmed what it is to be alive and to process mute swirls of consciousness into words on the page. Read more…

The Marches by Rory Stewart

February 17th, 2017 No comments

Thomas de Quincey calculated that Wordsworth walked a staggering 175,000 miles during his lifetime.

He was almost constantly on the move, composing as he went, ‘to which,’ de Quincey added, ‘we are indebted for much of what is most excellent in his writings.’

To put this in context, the circumference of the globe is only 25,000 miles. So Wordsworth could have walked seven times around the planet.

Walking in Wordsworth’s day was the act of a radical; it was to ally yourself, as the young poet wanted to do, with the peasant and the peddler. While more aristocratic artists of the day might take the Grand Tour by coach to Italy, he chose to walk through France during the year of its revolution. To feel connected to the world and people; to make an atlas of his own feelings and spiritual progression.

Rory Stewart follows in that mould. His first book, the acclaimed The Places In Between, saw him walking right across Afghanistan just weeks after the fall of the Taliban, an adventure that was both brave and revelatory.  And this was just the beginning of a far longer walk that saw him cross Pakistan.  He went on to further adventures in Iraq where he was appointed a governor after the invasion and wrote memorably about the fog of ignorance that pervaded that administration.

Now he has come home, so to speak, to Wordsworth country.  In The Marches, he has written an account of a walk across and around England, beginning with a traverse along Hadrian’s Wall, built when a Roman emperor wanted to keep out alien migrants. Read more…

Art in memory of Oscar

October 30th, 2016 No comments

 

20161030_110147A visit to the memorable Artangel installation at Reading Gaol, that most Victorian of prisons with its red-brick cruciform shape and wire-grilled segregation.  I filmed ‘Oscar‘ for the BBC here when it was still an active prison some 20 years ago; it closed in 2013 and is now scheduled to be sold off.  But before it is, Artangel have continued their bold and imaginative curating of art spaces that no one normally reaches by getting artists and writers like Ai Weiwei and Anne Carson to leave messages in the cells that reflect Oscar Wilde’s incarceration here.  The finest of these offerings by far comes from Steve McQueen – a sculpture in which a prison bed is swathed in mosquito nets like a cocoon of the imagination.

20161030_111831I revisit Oscar’s cell – C.2.2.  When I filmed here, it was being used by two inmates so was even more crowded than in Wilde’s day – although he had to endure a harsh regime of physical labour.  ‘The most terrible thing about it is not that prison breaks one’s heart – hearts are made to be broken – but that it turns one’s heart to stone,’ as he wrote in De Profundis, his book-length letter from the cell.

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Wilde’s cell with a rose left as offering

On the day I visit, Patti Smith gives a three hour reading from De Profundis in the prison chapel.  She sings a short burst from two songs at the opening and close – first from Nina Simone’s  ‘Wild is the Wind’, then from her own ‘Wind’.  There are sections of the letter where, as Patti admits (‘What did that last bit mean?  I have no idea…’) Wilde can lose the reader as he goes off on wild and lonely tangents.  But there are also passages of haunting beauty: ‘I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine.’  It is a fitting tribute and one Patti delivers with passion and empathy.

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Steve McQueen’s ‘Weight’, with gold-plated mosquito netting

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Oscar, the film I made with Michael Bracewell for the BBC, is still available on iPlayer

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Letter from Iceland

August 20th, 2015 No comments

Letters-from-Iceland-TP_zpsb65ae8d4Difficult to be here without thinking of the travel book W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote in 1936 when they came.  Letters from Iceland is a curious and in some ways very lazy book, which they threw together for Fabers at a time when such golden boys they could pretty much do anything they wanted.

So in some ways it’s a mischievous anti-travel book that tweaks the tale of more serious contemporaries like Peter Fleming.  There’s quite a lot of ‘I can’t really be bothered to do this,’ with deliberately amateur black-and-white pictures.  At one point they just bundle in a whole anthology of clippings from previous visitors to bulk it up a bit.

But it also signals a sea change in their own writing – in Iceland, they can loosen up, free from the pressures of being ‘the voices of their generation’ back home, a particular pressure on Auden.  He had read Byron’s Don Juan on the boat over and the idea came to him (in a
bus when travelling across Iceland) that, for the first time, he could write some similar light verse, in the form of letters home to friends in England in which he could put ‘anything I could think of about Europe, literature, myself’ . And this lovely couplet about a place I’ve just visited as well:

‘In Seythisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.’

images (3)MacNeice contributes much less to the book – some eighty-one pages out of the first edition’s two hundred forty – but has some equally effective couplets in his own verse letter which prefigures the great wartime Autumn Journal: 

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‘Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
stills from the film of life, the frozen fire’

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they rode on ponies around the glacier of Langjokull

There was a subtext to their visit as well.  Some Nazi anthropologist were also visiting the island in an attempt to prove that it displayed pure, isolationist Aryan characteristics.  The two poets tried to show in contrast that it was the model for a quiet, democratic nation, free from such shrill nationalistic yearnings.  And it was in Iceland that Auden first heard the news about the civil war in Spain, and everything changed….

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Talking Sheep

August 3rd, 2015 No comments
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Jason Gathorne-Hardy, the master artist when it comes to sheep

Not often that an obvious stand-out classic arrives in the rather over populated world of nature history writing at the moment. Last year it was Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

This year it is definitely The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks , who already has a large following from his Twitter account as ‘The Herdwick Shepherd’.

Counting sheep will never send people to sleep again. It’s an extraordinary authentic account of what it actually is like to live and breathe sheep.  Tersely written as well.

He pays tribute both in his title and in his text to WH Hudson’s classic A Shepherd’s Life, which was based on a series of interviews with a shepherd in Dorset and which I quoted in The Green Road into the Trees when walking through that part of the world:

The naturalist WH Hudson, noted how the local plants had adapted by growing as low as possible to avoid the attentions of the sheep.  I was a great admirer of Hudson and had visited the house where he was born in Argentina, overshadowed by an enormous ombu tree:  a strange tree which is more like a giant shrub, and needs to have its branches supported on crutches across the ground, so that it resembles a giant spider.

He brought to his studies of England, in particular A Shepherd’s Life about these Dorset and Wiltshire Downs, a sense that England was just as strange and exotic as the pampas;  also a sense of how short rural memories are.  He told an odd story of how a farmer he had met had puzzled over finding a disused well full of sheep heads with horns, when none of the local breeds were horned;  and that Hudson had had to tell him about the old Wiltshire breed of sheep, with horns, which had only died out a generation or so before.

Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’

November 25th, 2014 No comments

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If you read one book this year, it should be not even the book itself, but the introduction to the book: Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, attached to the reissue of a lost classic, Annihilation of Caste by B.R Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchables at the time of Indian Independence.

In cool and merciless prose, Roy blows away the cobwebs that obfuscate all discussion of this most shameful aspect of Indian life.  There are still around 100 million Untouchables, or Dalits as they are now more commonly known  – and , as I saw when interviewing her some 15 years ago in Kerala, it is a prejudice that is practised in India by Christian and Muslim communities as well as Hindu ones.

You can watch The Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Darjeeling Limited and be blithely unaware of the realities of caste as a system that still preordains life for so many and so narrowly.

As she asks: ‘Other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism and religious fundamentalism have been politically and intellectual challenged at international forums. How is it that the practice of caste in India – one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisation that human society has known – has managed to escape similar scrutiny and censure?  Perhaps because it has come to be so fused with Hinduism, and by extension with so much that is seen to be kind and good – mysticism, spiritualism, non-violence, tolerance, vegetarianism, Gandhi, yoga, backpackers, the Beatles – that, at least to outsiders, it seems impossible to pry it loose and try to understand it.’

The introduction, at 125 pages, is longer than the book it presents.  In any other writer this might be presumption; with Arundhati Roy every last word is justified.  She has already proved herself a formidable polemicist, but this may have been her most important contribution to the debate about India’s future – and one which has already stirred up a great deal of controversy, both because she attacks Gandhi and because some Dalit radicals have complained – unfairly in my view – that she has tried to appropriate their voice.

‘The Doctor and the Saint’, as an introduction to Annihilation of Caste by B.R Ambedkar, has just been published by Verso in the UK.

The Indian edition by Navayana has the best cover – as here – and has been carefully priced to make it accessible to a wide readership, although there have been problems finding distributors for it in some states due to its controversial nature.  I bought it on my last day in Delhi and read it in the next 24 hours as I travelled back to the UK, learning more about India than I had in the previous two weeks in the country.

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…

Paul Fussell: An Anniversary Tribute

May 23rd, 2013 No comments
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Lt. Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945

I was in Philadelphia recently and thought of Paul Fussell, who lived there before his death this time last year and whom I knew:  one of the finest writers about 20th-century war, both because he wrote about the subject as a cultural critic more than military historian and because having fought in WW2 both in Europe and the Pacific, he knew what he was talking about.  The Great War And Modern Memory is his most famous book – but I have only just read one of his very last books, The Boys’ Crusade.  Subtitled ‘American GIs In Europe: Chaos And Fear In World War II’, it highlights some familiar Fussell themes:  how many American soldiers were teenagers, how little about war they knew before they went, and how many cock-ups there were.

Like all of his books – and like his conversation – it is candid and clear-sighted, just like the Augustan prose he so admired (he was a professor of 18th-century English Literature).   Unlike most books on WW2, it is also elegantly short.

But if his other achievements were not enough, he also helped in the revival of interest in travel writing, for which I am more directly grateful to him.  His book, Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars, championed travel writers of the 1930s like Robert Byron who had largely been forgotten at the time.

I was once with him when a BBC executive (I was trying to get the BBC to make a programme about and with Paul) asked him if he had ever met any Germans.  Fussell gave him a stare:  ‘Any Germans I met during the war, I killed.’  The executive blanched.

Read more…

Panspermia

March 11th, 2013 No comments

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of panspermia: the theory that Fred Hoyle and others put forward almost 30 years ago that – very broadly put – life was distributed across the universe by meteorites.

It’s often been ridiculed by other astronomers and physicists – let alone biologists – for being simplistic, but that surely is part of the charm: we should look for an elegant simplicity in our scientific solutions.

So the news that scientists, including a former colleague of Fred Hoyle’s, have identified biological matter in the heart of a meteorite that recently landed in Sri Lanka, in December, should have attracted much greater attention than it has.

This judicious and weighted article in the August M.I.T Technology Review puts the case.

My more frivolous case for panspermia is below:are 

The first Big Bang:

panspermia flood

through space, lactating

fireworks against the black;

meteorites cross-pollinate

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between planets,

extremophile bacteria

clinging to the rocks

like a rodeo:

‘yi-haaaaaah!’

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The Earth got lucky –

we were fertilised.

But what I want

to ask the Universe

is this:

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‘How was it for you?’