Saturday, 31 December 2011

Personal highlights of 2011

The Highs:

1. Arab Spring.

2. An amazing weekend visiting Jo in Paris with Charlotte. It reminded me of how wonderful continental Europe is.

3. Leaving Talis to set up a (so far) successful business.

4. Dave's 50th party at the Barton Arms.

5. I join the Prince of Wales Writers' Group and start writing a novel.

6. Fantastic weekend with Dave in St Ives. We happily blow our life savings on a stunning piece of art.

7. A week in the Lake District at Tiplog with Dave and Dave Aveston.

8. Two exciting weeks in Mumbai and Kerala. India is endlessly fascinating.

9. Bill and I meet Odyssey at the Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath.

10. Echo and the Bunnymen at the Symphony Hall with Sandra.

11. Jury Service in June. I loved it!

12. Dave and I meet Roy Hodgson at Bank.

13. The Academy - three days of intensive learning with the Institute of Ideas in July.

14. Working with schools - another great evening judging for the Debating Matters competition. Plus, being a Dragon in the Dragons' Den at Small Heath School, judging marketing plans.

15. Clay pigeon shooting with Dave.


1. The summer riots

2. The Birmingham Rep is still closed and there are no theatre highlights this year, which is unprecedented.

3. Dave fell downstairs and broke his toe just after Christmas.

4. Headaches get worse again, after two years of improvement.

5. The moment when I realised I would be losing my job.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In yesterday's Guardian Review, William Boyd described the problem that faced the screenwriters of the newly-released film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:
"Adapting a novel for the cinema presents unique problems - it's not at all the straightforward process people assume, particularly if the novel is as complex and cerebral as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

You could indeed argue, as my friend Bill did on Facebook, that even the celebrated 1979 BBC serial, which had seven one-hour episodes to play with, nevertheless struggled to convey fully the labyrinthine complexity of the novel. Having stayed up all night to watch it, Bill said:
"It's classic TV drama - meditative, but tense, and subtle. Great to see all that tobacco smoke and 70s grimness. It's vividly realised but, still, I miss the atmospheric detail and the interiority that only the novel can give."

The first Le Carré novel I read, The spy who came in from the cold, is a book that I recommend to anyone who is grappling with the nuances of office politics. That's one of the many strengths of Le Carré - he takes apart the mental machinations of every individual player, and expertly rolls out the consequences on the game at hand. The dynamics he reveals are specific to the fictional situation - Le Carré is brilliant at context-building - but there is also something universal that transcends Secret Service operations during the Cold War, for example.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is certainly demanding on the audience. At a superficial level, I couldn't help but wonder, about 45 minutes into the film, how today's cinema-goers will react to this beige, hazy, grainy portrayal of a bunch of washed-up forty-something males going about their deceptively mundane business. More problematic though is the complex unwieldy plot that resists the confines of a two-hour dramatisation. There are no handy little sub-plots to cut out (an ex-BBC friend told me that when the serialisation of Martin Chuzzlewit was being planned, he overheard a colleague say "We're just going to cut out the whole of the American section") because the narrative is too tight for that, and particularly in the first half, the scene-changes are frequent as the narrative is forced to represent all the multiple agendas, suspects and possibilities, which are fundamental to the story.

For all that, there are big bold splodges of brilliance which I will remember for a long long time. My favourite scenes mostly involve the flashback to the Circus in its heyday (unanimously deemed to be World War Two). At a raucous Christmas Party at the Circus, Santa Claus is substituted by a Vladimir Lenin look-alike, dressed in scarlet red of course, and giving every impression of being an annual ritual. The whole party erupts into a joyous rendition of the Soviet Union national anthem. Everyone in the room, including the female eye candy (I assumed them to be translators, transcribers or secretaries) was absolutely word perfect.

The incongruity of Cold War Western spies fervently embracing Soviet culture was, to say the least, striking. It was only when the gramophone needle dropped on La Mer by Julio Iglesias that I truly understood the significance. In an espionage drama centrally concerned with betrayal, you have a group of operators who can only survive the deadly demands of Cold War fieldcraft by steeping themselves in every single aspect of enemy language and culture. La Mer reminded me of a time when I eagerly devoured all things francophone. I even bought my first copy of Le Monde at the age of 12 (at WH Smith in Manchester's Arndale Centre).

The central paradox of espionage is neatly encapsulated in that rapturous scene in which the enemy's anthem is sung so joyfully and sincerely that it could easily be the opposing side - Karla's team over at the Kremlin. It's hard not to grow to love a culture that you are deeply acquainted with. You could even argue that such expert knowledge is impossible without that underlying passion in place. The scene prepares the audience for the final betrayal, the end-point of the film, and maybe injects some sympathy into a character (no spoilers here - I'm following William Boyd's good example) who sees only a grinding decline in Western culture (a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the film), and who has been fatally exposed to something seductively foreign.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Almost strangers

We were all encased in our private domains. We weren’t invited to party elsewhere. We didn’t drive but we didn’t drink. We watched the wedding of almost strangers. On the telly; on our own. We watched the guests in Westminster Abbey. We judged the hats of almost strangers. We failed to enter their private world. We stayed in our homes. The shops were empty. We didn’t gather. We didn’t care. We all switched off at the boring speeches. We all drifted off and did different things.

We gathered in a public place. We worried. We cared. Desperate to help. We stared at the patient. We touched him. We stroked him. We tried to enter his private world. We all signed his book in case he survived. We bonded with visitors who were almost strangers. We formed a community – a makeshift network. We all compared notes on making a difference. We brought him juice. We brought him fruit. We brought him chocolate. We badgered nurses. We gave our time. We tried to reach him. We humanised the hospital in case he could hear us. We chatted. We laughed. To raise his spirits. To raise our spirits. It was fun. It was desperate. We groped in the dark. We helplessly watched as he sweated and suffered. We tried to interpret his feverish speeches. We shamelessly watched the most personal of battles.

And always we wondered, how could it happen? A strong healthy man cut down in his prime. As if he were governed by natural laws – of princes and paupers, pomp and disease.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

An English field in winter

Grey with faint remembrance of green,
A delicate dusting of dirtied white,
But this thin coat provides no warmth,
No refuge from the cold in sight.

Frozen too the mind's imaginings,
Of future greens and autumn's flame,
Subsumed in nature's deepest coma,
Trapped in winter's freeze-frame.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Memento Mori

My friend Yvonne Thompson (@yvonnert) from Melbourne, Australia, yesterday tweeted a fascinating link to the Victorian photographic phenomenon known as Memento Mori, in which the dead were photographed, in an era where relationships to both death and photography were very different from what they are today.

One of those photos has inspired me to write a little poem, only the second poem I've written since leaving school (the first one was written on Tuesday on the train to London), so please be sparing in your criticism at this early juncture.

A modern memento

We fought, we nursed, but could not save,
Our dearest daughter from the grave.
And as we toil through deepest grief,
We clutch the thin threads of relief.

For ere she crumbles down to dust,
She will not disappear from us.
The man said "Hurry, I'll take a picture,
Then add some colour to enrich her."

He brought his black box to our dwelling,
And what would come out, there was no telling.
One last time we embraced our lost one,
Still as death all three till twas done.

Strangers, yes, to this modern mystery,
Our family won't be lost to history.
From one black box, a memento beautiful,
Eternally captured - our daughter most dutiful.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Highlights of 2009

Dave and I have been drawing up our respective annual lists of highlights for years now, but last year I reproduced mine on my blog (see 2008 Highlights and so it seemed natural to do the same this year. It's been a funny old year - well actually quite straightforward to characterise. It was a hard slog of a year at the end of which I'm in a better place in almost every way than I was back in January. My highlights can be anything from a general statement of life improvement to an individual moment, so with that in mind, here goes and as usual in no particular order:

1. Dave and I made a decision in January that 2009 would be the year of home improvements. As such, there've been no weekends away, no spectacularly expensive holidays, and very little in the way of fine dining - our usual avenues of extravagance. However the house now looks fantastic and we're totally in love with it. There are still things to do and buy - but aren't there always? It's been totally worth the lifestyle austerity of the first half of the year in particular.

2. This year was a great year for live music, one great reason for living in the UK, imo. The best live act I saw this year was The Leisure Society at The Glee Club in Birmingham (which provides a much more relaxed experience with live music than it does with comedy). The concert that meant most to me though was Magazine at the Manchester Academy, in company with what seemed like the whole of the Mancunian punk generation. Sound quality could have been better (and that's not the fault of the venue) but it was still a great experience, given that they're my all-time favourite band, and they split up in 1981, when I was only 16 hence too young to have seen them. Other good live acts I saw this year were David Byrne at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, Great Lake Swimmers at the Glee Club, Handsome Family also at the Glee, and Blue Nation at the Actress and Bishop.

3. At the beginning of April 2009 I moved into the Marketing team at Talis, and this turned out to be a great move, into what is probably the best team I've ever been a part of. Professionally, it's been a very good year - my writing has come on in leaps and bounds, becoming a lot more versatile, and I've also made a mark with podcasting in both library and educational contexts.

4. Easter. The home improvement austerity drive meant that a weekend away was out of the question, so we stayed at home instead and did loads of amazing things. We saw Nottingham Forest play Bristol City on Easter Saturday, and it was a staggering 3-2 victory (always indicative of a great game), stopping in the unassuming Swan in the Rushes pub en route for a very tasty oxtail and cheddar mash for £5.99. In the evening we met up with Fiona for a curry at Lasan's in the Jewellery Quarter, but apart from that we were on our own for the weekend, and we loved it, filling our time with the Our Friends in the North DVD, lent to us by Karen Reece, The Watchmen at the pictures, and other stuff.

5. Together with Jason Smith from Workers Education Association and Kathryn Ecclestone, Professor of Education at University of Birmingham, I've helped set up The Birmingham Salon for debate of contemporary issues in the city. Our first meeting, in partnership with University of Birmingham and the Institute of Ideas, will be held on Tuesday 9th February 2010 at The Studio on Cannon Street. See you there?

6. We had a lovely summer holiday in France, spending a week in a gite in the Loire Valley and a week in a windmill in our own meadow just inland from La Rochelle. La Rochelle was too busy to be a highlight, and anyway, we'd had bad news from home that morning, but we had a perfect meal at the restaurant at St Savinien, which we walked to from the windmill through fields and deserted lanes, and the other French people there were really friendly, coming to our table to chat. We also had a very good meal at nearby Tailleborg. Meanwhile, our meadow provided an ideal vantage point for a spectacular meteor shower.

7. My friend Sandra invited me to her 7 year old daughter's dance show in Solihull. As a non-parent, I rarely get a chance to see stuff like that, and I loved it. In fact, this evening I'll be watching the DVD of the show with Sandra and Rachel, and then hopefully reading a bedtime story to Rachel and her elder brother Ben, before we start eating and drinking to see out 2009 with Dave, Andy, Sophie and Geoff.

8. This year I was privileged to see Usain Bolt run at Crystal Palace with my friend Sally. We saw the full two days of athletics, staying at the best B&B I've ever experienced. It was enough to make a BNP member apply for Jamaican nationality (I'd like to think). It was also good to see Mo Farah win the 5000 metres, in fact I nearly fell into the row of spectators below me with the excitement.

9. Dave and Andy Collins perform Sweet's Ballroom Blitz at Fiona's birthday Curryoke. You had to be there - I laughed so much I couldn't breathe.

10. Jo and I spent a perfect day in London, centred around a matinee performance of Carrie's War which was wonderful. We saw an exhibition and lunched at the Courtauld's Institute, and mooched around our old West End haunts.

11. I had another good day trip to London, this time with Dave. Dave's sister and her kids had bought us a wine-tasting experience for Christmas, so we built a day trip around it. We went to the Imperial War Museum, and Dave tried not to get annoyed with my delaying tactics in the Holocaust section. We launched in the Oxo Tower, browsed around the Borough Market, and then went wine tasting.

12. We remembered my Dad on May 3rd, the 10th anniversary of his sudden death on the golf course of North Manchester Golf Club.

13. The Sopranos! We've just started Series 5, and we wonder how we'll fill our lives when it's over (the answer is The Wire, according to just about everybody).

14. It was another good year for theatre, but the best play I saw was the almost unknown Orphans (by Dennis Kelly) at the Birmingham Rep. Other strong contenders were The Winter's Tale at Stratford-upon-Avon with Sandra, and The Good Soul of Szechuan (Brecht) at the Library Theatre Manchester with Bill.

15. Just before Christmas, I met up with my friends Jacqui and Brenda at the Farmer's Market in Moseley. Bought some nice Christmas treats for me and Dave, and then we went off for a coffee at The Cross. There was a light sprinkling of snow on the ground, just enough to make you feel really festive, and I saw loads of people I knew. It reminded me to count my blessings about my lovely friends and acquaintances.

16. We had a perfect Christmas Day with Dave's family at the house of my sister-in-law, Lyn. Lots of champagne cocktails, wonderful food, wii dance games, and other

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

My top 10 pop guilty pleasures

I'm finally getting around to publishing this top 10 list, after talking about it for weeks if not months. Putting together this list made me realise how subjective the concept of a guilty pleasure is. You might think that Chic and Abba are guilty pleasures, but as far as I'm concerned, if it belongs on the dance floor, then I'm not going to feel so much as a pang of guilt any time soon.

So here goes, in no particular order except that number 1 truly belongs at the top...

01. Mr Blue Sky - Electric Light Orchestra- YouTube
02. Make me smile - Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - YouTube
03. Blue Savannah song - Erasure - YouTube
04. Ruby don't take your love to town - Kenny Rogers - YouTube
05. Copacabana - Barry Manilow - YouTube
06. Baker Street - Gerry Rafferty - Listen on YouTube
07. Save a prayer - Duran Duran - YouTube
08. American Pie - Don McLean - YouTube
09. Nights in white satin - Moody Blues - YouTube
10. Breakfast in America - Supertramp - YouTube