Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The courage of his convictions

If you ever doubted the supremacy of experiential learning over any form of teaching, including psychological brainwashing, you should listen to Ben Griffin, ex-SAS founder of Veterans for Peace UK. Seemingly wired for combat since boyhood, Ben joined the Paratroopers at 18 and throughout his first tours of duty longed only for more adventurous action. Training was nothing to do with the army's role as protector of us 'civi cunts', it was all about following orders without engaging the brain. Gang mentality is developed by fear of group punishment, aversion to killing overcome by de-humanising language: aim at the centre of the mass for fire a bullet in that man's chest.  (Did you know? ~ I didn't ~ that research showed 90% of soldiers aimed above the heads of their enemies, until impersonal terms reversed the stats). Now completely indoctrinated ~ his term ~ Ben joined the SAS. It was in Iraq he started wondering if we're causing more problems than we're solving. We'd become the secret police of Baghdad, living where Saddam Hussein had lived, using his tactics. I wanted to engage an enemy, what we were doing was terrorising civilians. Appalled by what he saw, Ben left the life he'd believed was his vocation, and is now restrained by a High Court injunction from his mission to 'tell people what was really going on'. The problem, he realised, was not just the Iraq war but war itself and the militaristic attitudes of our media and society. You can go on protests and not make any difference, it's like pouring weedkiller or plants that are tolerant. We need to be more proactive.
So the group Ben formed, Veterans for Peace UK, goes into schools to counteract the gloryising of combat, aiming to change hearts and minds, although Ben admits if his teenage self could see him now he'd just think 'what a wanker.' And yes, he is in breach of his injunction each time he gives this brilliant talk, organised at the Cheese & Grain by Frome Stop Wars Campaign on Tuesday. It met with massive applause from the Cheese& Grain audience ~ but then we would clap, wouldn't we, he's preaching to the converted. Weedkiller on the already weeded, you could say.  Memo to self: be more proactive...

Saturday, January 24, 2015

It's never too late to live happily ever after...

My introduction to theatre was through my father who was a traditionalist: iconic drama at top London venues throughout my childhood was, with hindsight, fair trade for the ban on cinema and TV, but musicals weren't on the dramatic menu. I discovered Stephen Sondheim's darkly magical world only five years ago, when saw Into the Woods on stage in Leamington and was captivated.  So even the fact the movie is a Disney production didn't stop me scampering off to Bath at first opportunity to see the big screen version out now (and up for 19 nominations including 3 Oscars including Meryl Streep's fantastically witchy witch). Into the Woods  is a collage of fairytales, laying out the familiar character cards and motivating longings of the game ~ romance, reconciliation, justice, and above all the primal scream for love ~ with wit and satire too (I loved the leaping princes' waterfall duet ~ in real location apparently, with only chicken wire spread over the rocks to avert catastrophe for Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen).  And perhaps oddly, half-sung dialogue doesn't detract from psychological insight, as when Cinderella queries the value of social elevation, and the giant-crisis panic response of mutual-blaming.  Sondheim's characters must be a dream for the actors who, from Johnny Depp's all-too-short lupine life to James Corden's heroic journey as the baker who finds manhood by facing his fears, are all terrific. So there you are: if you've missed it live, I'm sure it'll be downloadable. A visual feast, as they say.

Meanwhile in Frome, the fantastic Three Corners featured at  Grain Bar Roots Session and Friends of  Frome Festival gathered after hours at the River House to hear Melanie Jones reading from L'Amour Actually, the novel inspired by her blog on life in rural France. The woman was one of those irritating expat types who felt she owed it to the world to impart on all her superior knowledge of life in France ~ but don't be deterred, that's a quote from the story, not my comment about the author.

In case you haven't heard of Tommy Emmanuel ~ I hadn't, till recently ~ he's 'an Australian virtuoso guitarist best known for his complex fingerstyle technique, energetic performances, and use of percussive effects on the guitar.' Wiki also mentions the clatter of awards he's won around the world. And he finished his current UK tour in Salisbury, where I was lucky enough to be one of the thousand-plus music fans in the City Hall on Friday (thankyou David!) to hear his final gig. Stunning is the best word. Tommy can do anything with the guitar, it seems, from evoking nostalgia ~ his Beatles medley a special favourite ~ to jigs and reels apparently played on fast-forward ~ Tall Fiddler simply incredible. He gives a helpful lesson, too, for anyone with bionic fingers and 23 hours a day free to practice... As those links will show, he's a charismatic performer and a charming man who really seems to believe his own motto: "It's never too late to live happily ever after."

Monday, January 19, 2015

Villajoyosa: happily named haven

Villajoyosa,  where I spent last week with writer and long-time friend Jill Miller whose blog gives a fascinating account of her eventful & recently nomadic life, has confounded my prejudices against the Costa Blanca for the second time this winter.  Jill and John's apartment features three long windows overlooking a chequered fountain-square beyond which there's a beach of soft sand the colour of warm croissant, beyond which stretches the Mediterranean sea, tone-shifting through turquoise to silvered indigo below an azure sky from golden dawn, on the left, to fluorescent pink dusk, on the right, about ten hours later. We spend these intervening hours walking & talking and sitting & talking, mostly outside, and in evenings go to the wi-fi bar for me to post images of the day's wanderings on facebook.
All along the sea front, gaudy apartments in scorching colours clash against a sky so savagely blue that image saturation is totally redundant. Palm trees punctuate the pink pavement and cluster on the beach. I learned (thanks Stephen McParlin) that the vividly painted houses are to guide fishermen home in dangerously bad weather ~ also that the sweaters made by mothers and wives are they can be identified, if necessary, after prolonged loss at sea. This is still a fishing town: we watch the trawlers returning with their catch each evening, swirled around with seagulls.
Another charming aspect of town life is the graffiti on every available public space: what Spanish crews may lack narrative and satire, they supplement by tireless profusion.
As well as flȃneuring the streets and squares of Villajoyosa we made other sorties, into the mountain villages around Puig Campana (thanks Carole) and a tram ride to Finestrat (every horrendous high-rise cliché about this coast), but mostly we walked along the rim of the town, beyond the marina on the dawn side and past the estuary below the town bridge, where the heron fishes at dusk. And we talked about childhood ~ or more accurately, ways of surviving early experiences. Synchronicitously I've been reading two terrific books which, fictionally (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler) and diagnostically (Kith by Jay Griffiths), both look directly at the lifelong significance of early years. All learning is experiential and there's no absolute truth, but Jay argues convincingly that the dominant culture treats young humans in ways that would be illegal if applied to young dogs.. society has historically contrived a school system that is half factory, half prison, and too easily ignores the very education which children crave. Karen's narrator, Rosemary, uses anthropological material in a very different way: no spoilers, but here's one thought to be going on with:  The value of money is a scam perpetrated by those who have it over those who don't; it's the Emperor's New Clothes gone global. If chimps used money and we didn't, we'd find it irrational and primitive. Delusional. Chimps barter with meat. The value of meat is self-evident. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

cameras and other obsessive games

Key event of this week for me was the much-anticipated first showing of Games Night,  pilot for a novel and uniquely unusual concept based on the enduring fascination of board games  ~ for some anyway, though not for the teenage hero of this sharp comedy who finds himself trapped for the summer with an obsessed father and his nerdy chums.  Scripted by Sam Morrison and Andrew Endersby with input from director Martin Morrison, with great acting from familiar faces among Bristol's best, tight editing and a brilliant soundtrack, the consensus of opinion at the packed show-room of Bristol's Hen & Chickens was that this really should make it to wider audiences.... so, fingers crossed...

As my lens loss lament in the previous post generated a surprising amount of interest in these phone-camera days, here's the update ~ which contains the A-word so you may think it serves me right for
dealing with a despicable tax-refusing institution, but remind yourself it's actually the despicable bankers & warmongers wrecking the economy, and despicable media which keeps us all blaming everyone else...  So, if you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin.
Despite being just within warranty, the man from del Nikon said No to refund and the sympathetic man from Amazon (yes, real person on the phone within seconds of my online whinge) could only suggest Small Claims Court.  So there the matter ~ in this case malfunctioning Nikon J1 ~ rests,  for quite a few unhappy customers according to Google as Nikon cameras appear to be designed for obsolescence after a year. Seizing a chance to upgrade I splashed out on a luscious Sony 6000 and spent a happy morning in The River House test-shooting, until the non-removeable fake shutter click became so annoying it all had to go back... acceptable on a windswept moor or Foo Fighters gig probably but not for my kind of observational photography.
So I downgraded instead and got a neat little Kitkat-sized Canon IXUS, without the bells and whistles, in fact satisfactorily mute. Hurrah. Though Ollie is actually dancing not cheering.

Off to Spain now, to spend a week with writer Jill Miller, talking of writerly things and, I hope, walking in sunshine as we appreciate the septegenarian pleasures of life.

Monday, January 05, 2015


 "Wishing you all year of passion, excitement, narrow escapes and a few victories" ~ from Alex Boyt, that for me was the cream of the crop of generic new year wishes on facebook.
Like 600 others in Frome, I launched my 2015 launched in retro style, dancing & chorusing along with Sergeant Pepper's Only Dartboard Band at the Cheese & Grain with their finale performance ~ the final foot of their last leg show-tour. Allegedly.... A brilliant event from the fab five, including all the favourites ~ especially their spine-tingling version of While my guitar gently weeps ~ with Leander Morales providing superb support. Leander is in fact a Frome Standard Man-of-the-Year, along with equally lovely Peter Macfadyen for being a splendid, warm-and fuzzy yet environmentally effective, mayor ~ in Leander's case the nomination is for collecting signatures from diverse celebrities  (Ed Sheeran to Terry Wogan via Nicholas Cage & Paloma Faith, fr'instance) on a guitar which raised £11,000 on eBay auction for the RUH neo-natal intensive care unit. 

I'm ending with this image of Bratton White Horse for sentimental reasons: my beautiful little Nikon reported a lens fault immediately after taking it - first camera I haven't broken in years, and it goes and breaks itself - so NY picture in this posting is from my mobile, with Leander filched from Rob Moger's facebook. Unable to face a cameraless future, I've just splashed out on a new system, either brave venture or the triumph of hope over experience...
So as we carefully unwrap box-fresh little 2015, here's my usual January offering to you all: the sublimely ordinary words of Brendan Kennelly, hoping you'll find both comfort and inspiration here.
Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise 

born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin, 

 begin to wonder at unknown faces 
at crying birds in the sudden rain 
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.