Neanderthal and Proud

April 28th, 2021 No comments

A little while ago my brother decided to get a DNA test. So far, so good and why not. He discovered, and decided to share with his siblings, without necessarily asking us if we wanted him to, that we were all descended from a mix of the usual British suspects – a bit of Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Celt – and were predisposed to standard diseases and health risks.

But he kept one surprise back to the end. We had double the normal amount of Neanderthal in our genes.

For those who haven’t been keeping up, it’s now well established that we all have a small quantity of Neanderthal genes. This is the result of contact that occurred largely in the Middle East and  Europe when homo sapiens arrived to find Neanderthals already there, sometime before 40,000 BC.  And given that’s a fair while ago, there must been a great deal of what scientists genteelly call ‘interbreeding’ for even some of that still to survive diluted today. Read more…

Afghanistan: No Interpreters and the Dangers of Ignorance

March 25th, 2021 No comments

As the Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan and here in Britain we hold a Defence Review, have we learned the lessons of our own failures there?

Lockdown has given me plenty of time to reflect and I’ve been thinking recently a great deal about Afghanistan – perhaps prompted by the fact that the Americans may be about to withdraw completely from that country after 20 years of largely unsuccessful occupation since the invasion.

I was in the country for a brief and intense time in 2007 when I was filming for Channel 4 Dispatches and CNN. We saw a country that had been brutalised for decades by the Russian occupation, the ensuing civil war and then the American carpet bombing to ensure that their troops met no resistance. And a country which was becoming restive as the Allies seemed increasingly unable to help them rebuild, or for that matter interested in doing so once they had been distracted by Iraq. Read more…

The Dig – A triumph

February 2nd, 2021 No comments

So archaeology can make for a great movie. Don’t be put off by the rather patronising review in the Guardian or some carping criticism about historical accuracy. The Dig, streaming from today as cinemas closed, is an excellent film and worth catching. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it gets a few BAFTA nominations and deserves to.

I did initially approach with suspicion as to whether it was the sort of quiet English period piece which would irritate me for being underscripted and too pleased with itself. Like too much Sunday afternoon television. But this tale of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon longship in a Suffolk field just before the war has a quite unexpected and moving performance by Ralph Fiennes – a career best – playing a deep East Anglian countryman with not just the accent, but the staggered delivery that makes the Suffolk voice so memorable. He apparently had a lot of training in ‘suffolkation’ from local expert Charlie Haylock, and it shows.

And he’s not the only reason to see it.  There is some unusually fine ensemble acting, helped by the fact that the Australian director Simon Stone comes out of experimental theatre where he has been much heralded; this is his first film and he manages to get some subtle performances all round, leaving in the silences, helped by a good script from the successful novel by John Preston. Read more…

Back to the Joys of Armchair Travel

January 10th, 2021 No comments

‘Well that’s you shafted,’  said one friend kindly at the start of the worldwide lockdown. ‘Not a good time to be a travel writer…’

Well yes and no. Obviously there’s not much actual travelling possible at the moment. But then the ratio in travel writing between the former and the latter has always been grossly disproportionate – too little time spent travelling and far too much time having to write about it when you get back.

And in my case I only did just get back. I was writing a piece about the sunny beaches and boho resorts of northern Uruguay – one of those gigs which leads to envy and resentment, particularly in March – when  they introduced the sudden guillotine on air travel, so we had to slip over the border to Brazil for one of the last flights back to Europe. I was travelling with my girlfriend and for a moment we thought of just staying, as there are worse places to self-isolate than a low rent beach hut in the sun; but while this sounded fun for a while, if the worldwide lockdown continued for months it might have become restrictive and complicated. Wiser counsels prevailed. Which is lucky as otherwise we would still be there. Read more…

Whatever Happened to Television?

June 10th, 2020 No comments

The suggestion in the BBC Plan that BBC4 is to stop making new programmes and become a largely repeats-only channel, possibly only accessible online, is a depressing reminder to viewers of a very long-term trend.

Oh dear. Whatever happened to television? And in particular, the area that BBC4 was particularly supposed to promote – factual and arts television. The channel that was launched with the slogan, “Everybody Needs a Place to Think”. Has the BBC decided that they no longer do?

Or rather, that it is not for them to provide it, when they can concentrate on ‘youth programming’ like BBC3, with the assumption patronising to both young and old that serious factual programming is only for the elderly.

Time was when working in television was to work in one of the most exciting industries around. I certainly found it so. Read more…

How to Write about a ‘Plague Year’ – 1603 and Thomas Dekker

May 11th, 2020 No comments

All those writers buried away in self isolation and trying to describe what we are all experiencing could do worse than turn to Thomas Dekker’s ‘A Wonderful Year’, his account of living through the plague in 1603.

Dekker was a young playwright around town in Shakespearean London, very much on the make, and constantly in and out of trouble and prison for debt.

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Come the plague in 1603, and all the theatres closed – lockdown was always immediate if deaths from the disease reached just 30 a week – so Dekker turned his hand to pamphleteering to make ends meet.

The challenge was to attract a readership who might not want to be reminded of what they were only just escaping when the pamphlet came out. Dekker’s answer was to try to make much of it as funny as he could: ‘If you read, you may happily laugh; tis my desire you should, because mirth is wholesome against the Plague.’ Read more…

Return to Aldeburgh

February 20th, 2020 No comments

For those who have been wondering where I’ve been for a longer pause than usual, last year I turned my attention to poetry which has been a constant presence in my writing life, and have been assembling some collections which needed seclusion and concentration, including one of travel poems which for obvious reasons has been a constant thread.

As part of that process I returned to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival which loyal readers with longer memories will remember I attended almost exactly 10 years ago and gave a reading and blogged about.

So very interesting to go back. A certain amount has changed, in that the poetry festival – now called ‘Poetry in Aldeburgh’ as part of its new incarnation after a substantial hiccup a few years ago when the original one went bust – has taken a few years to get up and running again. Read more…

Salsa Nights in Colombia

March 18th, 2019 No comments

The big black guard outside the Topa Tolondra salsa club is built more like a security truck than a man. But the intimidating effect is offset by his spectacles and affability. “Welcome to Cali – salsa capital of the world,” he tells us. And does a few moves.

If there’s any doubt that we’ve arrived at the Holy Grail for all salseros, there’s a giant mural over the dancefloor based on Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’; but with Oscar D’León, Rubén Blades and Johnny Pacheco taking the role of the disciples clustered round Ismael Rivera (the Puerto Rican who made salsa such a street sound). A young Celia Cruz is the only woman at the feast, resplendent in a red ball gown with a smile that could light up Cuba, if not entire planets.

They look down upon a cavernous dancefloor that is already shaking to a heavy bass and insistent marimbas. It’s Tuesday and only 10 o’clock, so the place is relatively empty. “Come back at the weekend, and it will be so crowded, ‘no bailas – sino que te bailas,’ says one of our guides, Danilo Uribe: ‘you don’t dance – you get danced.’ Read more…

Best of 2018

December 31st, 2018 1 comment

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.

‘Roma’: Mexico City in the 1970s

December 10th, 2018 2 comments

 

I like a director with a truly visual imagination – which surprisingly few have – and Alfonso Cuarón qualifies in every way.  I loved Gravity for the formality of its visual approach – almost the entire film was shot on the same focal length of lens, apart from the ‘dream sequence’ which was shot on a slightly wider one so the audience was disconcerted without quite knowing why.

But I was still not quite prepared for quite how good his new movie Roma is. Cuarón was his own director of photography, and his black-and-white camerawork is luminous and inspired.

I also have a strong affinity for the place and time – Mexico City in the 1970s where I lived for a while and wrote Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico. Although of course I remember it in colour.

 

What impresses me so much is the control and confidence with which Cuarón wields his camera. The film genuinely inhabits the space: mainly a suburban house in Mexico City but also some diverse landscapes and startling juxtapositions.

When I lived in Mexico City the arthouse cinemas showed a lot of Fellini and this reminded me of them – particularly when we visit the wasteland outside Mexico City where, as a human cannonball is shot into a safety net, we follow the film’s heroine in search of the father of her child.

This is not some softshoe indie shuffle, but a film with heart and purpose. At its heart is the Mixteca maid Cleo (played by non-professional newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) who  has a quiet and moving resignation in the face of some of the humiliations and tragedies life throws at her. I defy anybody to watch the penultimate scene when the children are swimming in a dangerous ocean and she wades into the waves to try to save them without a lump to the throat.

It’s a shame that Gabriel García Márquez never allowed anybody to film One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Cuarón would be the perfect director for the project, perhaps as a longer box set.