Friday, December 23, 2016

Love & Friendship – film review

Kate Beckinsale shines as the devious, manipulative and indefatigable Lady Susan, in Walt Stillman's adaptation of the Jane Austen novella. Cast by circumstance on to the largesse of distant relatives, Susan remains ravishingly confident, in a succession of stunning dresses, as she cheats, tweaks and seduces whomever expedience demands. The story itself is amusing but slight, and co-star Chloë Sevigny, as Susan's American pal, is curiously absent; she barely inhabits her scenes and appears at times to be reading the script from a very long way away. The rest of the cast have great fun, as the English middle-class always do when called upon to play the gentry. And the film is only 90mins, so win-win. 

PS Searching for Sevigny on Google brings up this fantastic selection of her quotes 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

On Thomas the Tank Engine and Tom Moss, his evil alter ego

My lad loves Thomas the Tank Engine. Loves it. Could watch it through the apocalypse, and may have to, the way things are going.

You might have found certain programmes that you enjoyed as a child that you later, as an adult, realise had ironic depths, hidden jokes that had kept the adults entertained while leaving your enjoyment undisturbed. 60s-era Batman, with its campestry, or 80s-era Danger Mouse, with its puns, is the sort of thing I mean. Thomas the Tank Engine is the complete opposite of that. Thomas has no hidden depths, or if it does they are all awful hidden depths, the sort of hidden depths that vote Ukip. The island of Sodor, where Thomas and his pals reside, is a joyless, quasi-fascist regime. Everyone knows their place, one man's word is law and the trains do, indeed, run on time.

OK, that's not quite fair. The original TV show had Ringo Starr narrating, evidence that the makers did in fact have a sense of humour. Moreover, the island of Sodor is not actually a fascist regime. Sodor is much more an idealised British land of deeply stratified class, in which all engines know their place and fascism isn't necessary because even the basics of class consciousness have yet to manifest. In fact, Sodor represents a sort of Victorian capitalist vision of religious utopia, in which the Fat Controller stands in for Our Good Lord, dispensing stern, all-seeing justice to the misbehaving toddler-engines who populate the railway.

You might ask why, as a member of free society, I don't just turn it off. But I don't live in a free society; I live in my very own fascist regime, run by my small child.

Lately, even he's got bored of politically suspect tedium, and begun to demand "Toy Thomas" videos. My initial reaction, as with most things, was to say no. These videos, made by "enthusiasts", are a sort of YouTube fanfic. They employ copious supplies of Thomas-branded toy railways, dubious editing skills and what it would be generous to describe as "rudimentary" animation techniques. All these achievements are marshalled to tell new Thomas stories, of which, as you probably now realise, the world has absolutely no need. Furthermore, the more successful of these enterprises have become vast advertorials for the toy firms, so while you're off getting five minutes peace at the kitchen sink, your child is absorbing about £500-worth of plastic-tat desire.

I held out for a while – constantly trying to switch over to "real" Thomas, as if that was any better – but, as with all things child-related, I eventually caved in. And I'm glad I did, because it turns out these Toy Thomas stories are infinitely better than the dud-handed official ones. My and my son's favourite features 12 tales of a renegade engine named Tom Moss the Prank Engine (you can see what they did there). Tom Moss skulks in the deep forest of Sodor, where the other trains are too scared to go, sporadically visiting the town centre to pull absurdist pranks on the sheeple-engines of the trad Thomas realm. What's more, Tom Moss always gets away with it, speeding off back to his forest lair after pulling his stunts, which seems to me to be a much healthier life lesson than the Fat-Controller-is-always-right turgitude of the original.

It's a great relief to see the pompous idyll shattered by a much-needed trickster visitation, to watch the squabbling suckups of Sodor get comprehensively gypped by a giggling reprobate with a penchant for exploding pumpkins and guerrilla helium attacks. Occasionally, the Minions and Peppa Pig turn up, for no apparent reason. My boy watches in enthralled silence. I find myself drifting into questions about Dave, the mysterious narrator of the Tom Moss offshoot.

I think he's called Dave – I seem to remember he mentions his name in a Brechtian moment at one point. As a professional journalist with keen research skills, I went as far as to peruse the YouTube channel whence these videos issue. This reveals that the moviettes are made by an Ian and Ali Phillips, along with their three boys, Chris, Dave and Mike. Dave sounds a bit old to be of the younger partners in a film-making dynasty, but, well, what do I know. Their channel has more than 1.5 million subscribers, and has notched up more than 2.5bn views. For reference, the official Thomas & Friends channel has 310,000 subscribers, with 464m views. Perhaps, as a professional journalist with keen research skills and lofty, broadsheet standards, I should phone up the Phillips family and ask what the inspiration was behind Tom Moss, and other questions a professional journalist with such skills and standards would ask. I give you one guess whether I'm going to do that. Besides, my boy wants the computer to watch Thomas.

Monday, May 09, 2016

May days

The men's eyes feast
On flesh of girls
Exposed to light

For the first time
Since September
Their sore eyes glint

At the expanse
And gorge themselves
Until the dusk

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

May day

The trees glisten as the new leaves peek
At the ragged theatre that winter has left

Monday, January 18, 2016

New Year's Eve

I'm sitting in the bath, this winter night
With candle lit and window wide, no clock 
to indicate the hour, just the mist,
the steam of boilers blazing in the cold.

No one great rocket leads the charge, no salvo calls the time
instead a slowly rising tide, the organ grinder turns
and then the sky is peppered with a thousand fireworks
let loose upon the placid clouds, from all directions blazing.

There's pitter-patter, jibber-jabber
paradiddles of fizzles and thwacks, 
a 3D city sound stage
of undulating acne.
A million tin tacks jab the air, 
dispatched from bargain multipacks 
that we can rest assured
all follow BS7114.

The city pops, mellifluous melee
that never stops but, shunning pattern, fades
and then, from park or street or patio,
ignites again, a cacophonous roar
which then recedes, though bangs and whizzes still
pursue the skies. For me, I loved the chance
to join my city's joy, from my bathtub
with candle lit and window wide, to hear
prolonged and tremulous report 
the exultation of this manmade schism;
it was to my surprise, and was, to my surprise,
to my delight

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Amazing World of M C Escher, Dulwich Picture Gallery review – to infinity and beyond

Good old M C Escher. The unprepossessing Dutch artist of extraordinary technical skill, whose woodcut graphic art explored paradox, infinity, tessellation, perspective, reflection and metamorphosis; a mathematical magician who learned only as much geometry as he needed to create his ever-mind-bending designs; a landscape artist of uncommon sensitivity and grace, who could evoke with varying strokes on a copper lithograph plate the rolling vistas of the Italian coast or architecture of Spain; whose worldwide success meant he kept raising the prices of his prints, trying to dampen down demand to no effect, but was never much feted in the art world; who was utterly bemused by the 60s counter-culture interest in his work, and refused a commission from the Rolling Stones supposedly because Mick Jagger addressed him by his first name; who was one of the triumvirate, with Gödel and Bach, of Douglas Hofstadter's golden eternal braid, which I have tried to read at least three times; the artist who, without apparently having any interest in drugs or mind-expansion, best managed to capture the hallucinations attendant to strong psychedelics. 

So, yeah, him. They put on a show of his work, this first in this country ever. It was ... um, great. I mean, I hate art galleries at the best of times, and this wasn't even close to being the best of times. And daytime at Dulwich does seem to involve an unnerving number of bald heads and grey hairs, the somewhat dystopian vision of where, I'm led to believe, the whole country will be in 50 years time: 90% old people getting in the way. 

That might sound bad, and it was, but to be fair, I was in a filthy mood and it was aggravated by the gallery's tiny rooms, which meant everyone shuffled round like it was a tube journey where we all wanted to read all the adverts. There again, the works are small and insanely detailed, so you wouldn't necessarily need bigger rooms, just fewer people would have been grand. I can only blame myself, since, despite knowing about this show for ages before it opened, I only managed to go with two days left, by which point all the oldies were no doubt on their fifth visit, determined to stand in the way of the only under-50 in town. 

I, like many people, stared at an awful lot of the pictures in reproduction as a stoned teenager, and they didn't necessarily gain an enormous amount in the flesh. Some of the woodcut prints were noticeably sharper and more impressive, but, especially as Escher wasn't much one for colour, seeing the real deal did not always impact enough to make up for the severe irritation of being in the gallery with all those people in those tiny rooms. The most notable exception was his final print, Snakes, which was magnificent, but that could have been because it was so close to the exit. There were a few nice artefacts: preparatory sketches; Escher's tools of his trade; his letters to the mathematician Roger Penrose; Escher's own copy of a Rolling Stone article about him, with his marks in the margin; and I would say about 20 works out the 100 there that I hadn't stared at to death more than 25 years ago. There was just one actual woodblock, with lizards on it, which had been drilled into to prevent further, unauthorised prints. I would have dearly liked to see some more blocks, and a clear explanation of how he constructed his prints from multiple blocks. Unfortunately the blurbs beside the pictures raised more questions than they answered.

Escher would no doubt have been unimpressed with me being rude about the elderly, having been, from what I can tell, old his entire life. He was baffled by the interest of the psychedelic era, especially those oafish hippies who saw a marijuana plant at the centre of his 1945 picture Balcony, thus claiming him as a kindred spirit. It obviously isn't a marijuana plant, and in any case his pictures are more reminiscent of LSD hallucinations – the curving tessellation, the metamorphosis of inanimate things into moving things and back again, the glimpses of infinity – than weed's soft-focus, warm-coloured distortions. Aged 15, I was obsessed with his 1956 woodcut Smaller and Smaller, which was the only thing that came close to capturing the hallucinations I'd seen in the night sky over Primrose Hill after taking a life-changing microdot. 

Of course, Hoffman didn't discover LSD until 1942, so Escher would have been unlikely to have experienced that particular medicament (having said that, he was in Switzerland at about the right time ...). However, I was pleased to note the unlikely appearance of a sole liberty cap masquerading as a light fitting in his 1935 masterpiece, Hand With Reflecting Sphere, thus clearing up the mystery to the satisfaction of all concerned. 

OK, it isn't that either. It seems that Escher managed to a priori tap into, explore and represent truths about reality and perception that most people could only glimpse on 150µg of acid. However, I do have incontrovertible evidence that Escher was not, as he pretended to be, some naif in the ways of pop culture. No, sir. Maurits Cornelis Escher was, in actual fact, a hipster before hipsters – in the 1920s, as well, so way, way before anyone else could make the claim – I mean, can you get any more hipster than being a hipster 80 years before anyone else has even heard of them? Case closed. And if you want more proof, well, here it is: the photographic, or at least lithographic, evidence of your own eyes: just look at this fuckin' hipster.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson; The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo review – waste knot

Bea Johnson and Marie Kondo
What do we do with all our rubbish? The waste of our lifestyles threatens to overwhelm us. As Andrew O'Hagan wrote in the LRB in 2007: "We grew up imagining that rubbish was taken away, only to find there is no such place as ‘away’." Rubbish tips overflow, the seas are awash with plastic trash and whole countries are turned into the dumping grounds of richer countries. OK, we recycle more, but recycling uses energy and often the thing made from the recycling is not itself recyclable, thus just kicking the can, bottle and packet one step down further the road before dumping it in landfill after all. Perhaps the answer is to produce less waste all together, recyclable or not.

Bea Johnson is described as the "priestess of waste-free living" on the cover of her curious book, first published in 2013 and now out in Penguin, which promotes the principle of zero-waste: putting nothing into landfill. The usual reduce, reuse and recycle mantra is here topped and tailed with refuse and rot. Of these refuse (verb not noun!) is the most pertinent, and the battle against accepting things into your home that will become rubbish is at the forefront.

The cover also includes the adage "Live Well, Consume Less, Feel Fabulous" on the back. Yes, this book is here to tell you waste-free living can make you happier, better off, your skin clearer, clear up your IBS, all while saving the world from swimming in its own filth. It's win-win, basically, and all you have to do is stop throwing stuff away, and you mainly do that by not accepting stuff that you will throw away in the first place. She's at war, essentially, with the disposability that we take for granted in modern life.

She is at pains to show that it's doable. She has come back from an extremist zero-waste lifestyle to a more manageable very-little-waste lifestyle, but has still got her waste-disposal needs down to one litre a year, which means if you throw out a two-pint bottle of milk, you've instantly out-wasted her.

It's an impressive feat, even if the entire book is shot through with a certain defensiveness whenever the terms "well-off, neurotic homemaker with too much time on her hands" hover above. Johnson is well-off, is a homemaker (housewife) and if she is neurotic, well, if only we could all channel our neurosis into internationally successful books. She's certainly thorough, although perhaps she's just enthusiastic.

I sort of liked it, even though I affect the same allergic reaction to lifestyle stuff that we all do. Johnson's style is all lifestyle, but the issue of waste is somewhat more pressing than the here-today-gone-tomorrow diets, exercise and skincare regimes that make up most of the lifestyle section. Waste is fascinating, to my mind: I seem to have a deep-seated, although largely unsatisfied, desire to feel that we and the things we use are in a ever-replenishing cycle, rather than on a one-way journey to the dump. 

Johnson does some wacky shit. Takes a plethora of containers to the bulk-buy supermarket in order to refuse any bags, boxes or packets that might imperil her one-litre-a-year habit. Makes her own cosmetics and deodorant. Mulches paper. Brushes her teeth with a twig. Refuses any and all freebies, even the shampoo packets in hotel bathrooms. The book itself is quite closely typeset, presumably an environmental choice to use less paper. Sometimes, following her thought processes can be nice, as she explains how she's ended up making this choice over that choice, or this compromise over that principle. But it can also be exhausting, although that could be from having to squint at the close-set type.

It's worth reading though, because even you don't subscribe to the whole zero-waste biz, the very fact that someone is bothering to consider the idea does begin to rub off on you. I started wondering whether I needed to take the wooden spoon with my takeaway cup of tea (let's not even get on to the takeaway cup itself), or the paper bag for my brownie. I became a bit more aware, a bit more conscious, of just exactly how much needless waste is generated in the course of a day, and, following Johnson's example, started to think that perhaps it is worth making even those microchanges, because after all, microchanges add up, eventually, to a macrochanges. Eventually.

So, I liked the book. It's absurd in parts, but not unbearable. She could have cut some of the liquid-soap recipes and instructions for building a dog-waste composter; it's not really a reference book, and those are the sort of things that are widely available on the web, but no matter. It's thorough and if a few of her ideas might sit well with you, we could, perhaps, eventually stop this world from turning entropically into a massive pile of slurried shite. 

At some points, Johnson mentions decluttering as a happy side effect of her zero-waste regime. In this she is very much stepping on the territory of Marie Kondo, the "queen of decluttering", who is currently having a moment and a half in the spotlight for her charmingly deranged method of de-stuffing our lives. Kondo's method is sort of the opposite of zero-waste – throwing things away is her jam. She tells you to go through all your possessions – in a very particular order – hold each one in your hand and decide if it "sparks joy" or not. If it doesn't, out it goes.

Kondo is very keen that we don't see throwing stuff away as shameful or wasteful. Fear of waste shouldn't mean we live our lives crammed with stuff we don't need and often don't even want or like. As a consultant, her clients have chucked away tonnes of stuff (she says, on average, 20-30 45-litre binbags, so 1,350 litres, or more than a millennium of Johnson's output), much of it straight into the garbage. 

It's not entirely clear to me how this method works once you move to the mundane items of daily life: can any of us truly say that our toothpaste "sparks joy"? Or our alarm clock. And if not, are we going to lob them out? "Sparking joy" here could perhaps mean having a positive reason to keep something, instead of negative reason for not getting rid of it. Kondo also goes in for a bit of animism: she wants you to think of your things as beings – something FWIW that my three-year-old is a dab hand at – and treat them with the respect they deserve – something that he is not so keen on. If you find something that you once loved but don't any more, you can thank it for its service and let it go, to the benefit of both you and it.

In contrast to Johnson's book, Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying is quite widely typeset – uncluttered – which makes it a more enjoyable read than Zero Waste Home, although it does use more paper per sentence. And whether not you can envisage thanking your old T-shirts for their service, or folding your underwear the way she recommends (no balling your socks, because they can't get any rest tucked up like that – that's what the lady says), there's something beautiful in the thinking behind her ideas. 

To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful. Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a cupboard of drawer that you have forgotten its existence? If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them. Help them to leave that deserted isle to which you have exiled them. Let them go, with gratitude. Not only you, but your things as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done tidying. 

One of the things Kondo gets across clearly is the waste of not throwing things away. We tend to see throwing things away as a loss, without recognising the cost of keeping them. But once she's painted a picture of a clutter-free lifestyle, where the things you have are things you've joyfully chosen, and, more importantly, where you can find them, because they're not surrounded by hundreds of other things you haven't, you'll consider swallowing your pride and wonder if you can't make time to follow her recommendations to energise your wardrobe.

Beyond a clear, tidy house, Kondo is aiming to train something more fundamental – the art of decision-making. By practising, first on clothes, then books, then papers, the miscellany, then sentimental items, you are honing your ability to use joy as a barometer for the things you want in your life. No prizes for guessing how this could leak out into the rest of your life. Moreover, she wants to help you see how your attachment to the past and anxiety to the future manifest in hoarding. It's tidying and psychoanalysis rolled into one. As long as no one tells her that when she throws all this stuff away, there is no away.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Star Wars The Force Awakens review – well, more a view than a review

Contains spoilers, I guess, but nothing too terrible. I wouldn't worry about it

To the cinema, then, just in time to see the great Force Awakens before everyone else has entirely forgotten about it. The last day of the Christmas holiday, after which we can stop looking back and start looking forward, to Episode 8 no doubt.

There's been a lot of kerfuffle and a whole lot of ker-ching over JJ Abrams' reboot, most of which I have entirely ignored in a vague attempt to A V O I D S P O I L E R S, that most 21st-century of afflictions (it didn't work, however: Twitter served up with several that did ruin the film, despite the fact they turned out not to be true). Thus I don't know where the general view has ascended to, beyond the obvious, which I shall now delineate to all our betterments.

Obvious fact #1: it's good

It's Star Wars. It looks the part. It fills the Star Wars-shaped gap in our grey matter. It does the job. The dialogue mostly makes sense. The characters are passable. There's a strict limit on the number of planetary systems with names made by sprinkling consonants into Egyptian words. There's whizz-bangs, lasers, lonely chaps in black masks, space ships, aliens, lightsabers, spiritual hokum, troubled families. Mostly, it looks the part. It's Star Wars. It's got the space junk thing. Everything looks battered and weathered, not slicked with a shiny veneer of CGI lotion. George Lucas's addiction to CGI was the tragedy that kept on giving, dragging the special editions and then the prequels out of the pock-marked, long time ago, far, far away galaxy and into a virtual-reality junket with no obvious boundary between the movie and the video game. 

Yadda yadda: It looks the part. It's got Han Solo and Chewie and the Millennium Falcon and X-wings and Tie fighters and stormtroopers and desert trading posts and ruined Imperial Destroyers lying in the sand, and sweet-beeping droids that are basically little dogs, and it's got cool, funky bars with wacky aliens playing cool, funky, wacky, alien reggae; it's got people picking things up from a long way away and telling other people to do things and them doing it; it's got the aforementioned bloke in black, only this time he takes off his mask and instead of a scarred Anakin Skywalker, it's some tortured teen who's stopped slapping on the Clearasil just long enough to act out his Oedipal issues.

It's got tree-lined vistas, sweeping desert-scapes, blowy snowy wastes, black galactic skies. It's got a planet that can blow up other planets – like last time, only much bigger and more powerful than that one, which you might remember was much bigger and more powerful than the one before that – and this planet has got a weak spot that the rebel ships can penetrate if only they get the shields down in time. It's Star Wars, basically, and Star Wars is good, so it's good. 

Obvious fact #2: you could complain

You could definitely complain. You could note that it's a bit tough to take the disjunction between where we left the story 33 years ago – the evil empire utterly vanquished, the furry ewoks dancing in the treetops, Darth Vader doing his best Uncle-Arthur-after-two-heart-attacks routine – and where we pick it up, with stormtroopers killing innocent villagers and the dark side back in the black. You could complain about any number of narrative nonsenses. You could complain about the lack of any relation to the world as it is now, our world, which has changed so much since 1977, a world in which small groups of dedicated fighters hiding out in desert enclaves while battling an apparently all-powerful enemy has acquired an entirely different meaning; also one where the hand dryers in the cinema toilets are now more advanced than half the ships in the original film. You could complain about the price of the tickets. You could complain that any boy who had Han Solo as his father would basically be the coolest kid in the universe, the one we'd all wanted to be, not Adrian Mole-goes-Isis. You could complain that a film supposedly about the battle of good and the light against the malign forces of the darkest sort of evil apparently includes a thank you to Darth Insidious himself, George Osborne, probably for giving the film-makers a huge tax break he had stolen from starving disabled children. 

But yeah, Star Wars, it was great. Two hours of intergalactic comic-strip cheeseburger and fries, an absorbing munch for the eyes, lacking key nutrients, sure, but pretty fuckin tasty.