A rocky road to run

Out running in the pleasant countryside of Fife this afternoon, a friend passed some young gentlemen who seemed to be entertained by the lone female getting fit in the fresh air. A sudden sharp pain in her hip as she ran by brought her to the shocking realisation that these were not the well-bred, well-educated youth of her everyday experience: one had thrown a rock at her which struck its target. The lone female took a fright and ran back to her car to examine the damage and consider next steps.

The next step, on establishing that there was no bleeding, was to drive to the next cut in the path where she met them cycling on the wrong side of the road towards her. She stopped in a passing place and took a photograph of them and asked them to explain their actions. No satisfactory rationale was forthcoming but in the attempt at a justification, an admission was obtained. Initially indignant at the breach of their right not to be photographed in a public place, they became fearful as the lone female got into her car and drove away with evidence that linked them to the crime.

The really awful thing about this episode, aside from the fact that a lone female is not safe to run in the lovely Fife countryside for fear of assault, is that this lone female is a teacher and, if she were to publish the faces of these assailants or pursue redress or apology through the good offices of Police Scotland, it is possible that questions and accusations may be raised that challenge her professionalism. That’s a road not worth running down.

Northern Ballet: Romeo and Juliet

There’s something inherently romantic about the French. Last night’s performance at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre of Romeo and Juliet by Northern Ballet lacked none of the romance of Shakespeare’s most romantic play. This is hardly surprising, when the choreography, set design, costume and lighting design are all the product of French minds.

Nicola Gervasi and Mlindi Kulashe © Emma Kauldhar, from Danceeurope.net (click to go to website)
Nicola Gervasi and Mlindi Kulashe © Emma Kauldhar, from Danceeurope.net (click the image to go to their website)

Jean-Christophe Maillot‘s choreography was brilliantly executed by the dancers of Northern Ballet, wearing the costumes of Jérôme Kaplan within the brilliant visual context of Ernest Pignon-Ernest‘s set and Dominique Drillot‘s lighting. Although visually simple, the changing scenes and emotional rollercoaster ride of this tragic narrative, were by no means simplistic. In the week that had the Internet wondering what colour a dress was, this creative team showed the true power of movement, surface and light.

The company of dancers were no less impressive in their execution of the ballet. Isaac Lee-Baker provides a kind of visual narrative throughout the work in the role of Friar Laurence. All of the tragedy of the piece seemed to pass through his body as he connected the parts together. Dreda Blow’s Juliet evolved from innocent naïveté through rage and betrayal at the death of her cousin to her final release from tragedy. Tobias Batley’s Romeo was as dashing and handsome as Romeo can be.

Prokofiev’s score for this piece is to me the de facto musical canvas upon which to paint this ballet picture. A tightly correlated interpretation of the music was provided by Northern Ballet Sinfonia under John Pryce-Jones.

The jewel in this particular crown of Northern Ballet’s repertoire last night had to be the stunning portrayal by Mlindi Kulashe of the arrogant and cocky Tybalt. The dancer had the character so perfectly encapsulated, so visceral, that his rages and flourishes were as in-your-face as a late night subway encounter with a Harlem gangster.  The crowd loved it, especially Mlindi.

(Inter)Stellar Narcissism

MV5BMjIxNTU4MzY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM4ODI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_I went to see Interstellar last night. After all the hype and ravings of friends who had seen it, I was disappointed. This three-hour epic story had the style of 1970’s sci-fi, with heavy elements of fantasy clumsily stitched together with a good deal of shark jumping. The most striking thing about the movie is the blind insularity of its American cultural setting: the mid-West is suffering from food shortages caused by blight of major crops and American astronauts save the day. The star-spangled banner is spangled everywhere you look.

As well as the food problem, there is an unexplained problem of dust, perhaps due to soil erosion from the decimation of crops. Up steps the hero who mysteriously finds himself at a secret NASA facility near his farm. By now the plot punchline has revealed itself. The story tries to bring some cool popular physics ideas to the fore, with black holes and wormholes key features of the eventual trip to space to save the human race, or at least the white Americans of the corn belt.

There is much of the physics in the film which makes it attractive for a school trip: Scottish Higher students should be able to have fun picking over the many movie-maker’s errors: the twin paradox, relativity, gravitational gradients, event horizons and some very basic Newtonian mechanics are all at the Godzilla level of believability. There’s a lot more in the rich seam of “Hollywood Physics” throughout this story.

The signature US film-maker’s stereotype is predictably here: there’s a woman on the mission, and she makes the stupid mistake that signals that things are all going to go wrong. A change of genre appears when Matt Damon goes rogue in proper B-Western fashion and attacks the Sheriff. The movie passes through a pale imitation of Kubrick’s 2001 before getting a little emotional, staying just short of melodrama before delivering the final credibility seppuku by sending the hero back for the stranded girl.

This is a horribly narcissistic movie about Americans saving America/The World (the terms are interchangeable in this context) with ignorance, A Bad Guy and some nauseating moralising, badly done. I wish I’d gone to see the Turing film instead.

Educating for Social Justice

I attended a seminar last week that raised a number of issues for me in relation to social justice and the dangers of that agenda. There is a fuller account of the session on the wiki but I think it’s worth making one or two further points in this forum.

First, the tippy-toeing around extreme, illogical or simply stupid ideas in the name of religious tolerance. One of these days, the human race is going to finally rid itself of voodoo, invisible friends and the brutal intimidation inflicted on itself in the name of religion. If anything needs a cold hard critical examination, it’s this feature of our nascent society.

Second, alternate views do not become alternate-but-equal simply by being alternate. Jim Al-Khalili posted a great example of the difference between “a theory” like creationism and “a scientific theory” which makes this point well.

I will repeat again a question I have asked more than once this week:

Is there any evidence that an “equal playing field” is better than one that isn’t? Mother Nature’s not so keen – she has very effective ways of rewarding power differential and privilege. I wonder if we remove competitive selection at our peril.

Isn’t it time we stopped this conservative, white, naive egalitarianism? We could probably start with the pandas.

Desert Island Discs

didA colleague recently asked for suggestions for music which got me thinking that everyone should at least have a rough idea of what to play were they ever to be invited onto Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs. Now, it’s a vanity to even momentarily entertain the idea that one is of sufficient public interest to be invited onto this great British Radio programme, but that didn’t stop me preparing my list. Here it is.

The rules

The rules of being cast away on the imaginary island might seem a little anachronistic in this digital age but they boil down to these: you’re allowed 8 discs – tracks, in the modern vernacular – and the means to play them, presumably mechanical as there is no source of power for electronic devices. Concessions are that you can take with you a holy or philosophical book, the complete works of Shakespeare and one other book, plus one luxury item, provided that it doesn’t aid your escape from the island.

First two discs

The first disc sent me back to Letchworth, where I grew up in a house full of music. My mother sang all her life until age overtook her vocal cords. She still has the same passion for music, particularly Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto number 2, which would often play as I took my weekly bath on a Sunday evening. Mum is and always was a girl who liked fun, however, and was as likely to be found lost in a boogie-woogie – her favourite being Down the road a piece. My first two discs reflect my mother’s influence, therefore: the first, a classical masterpiece rendered by Isao Tomita electronically to great effect, especially from about 5 min 30 sec, where the effect of percussion leading in a sweeping chorus still moves me as much now as when I first heard it 35 years ago.

1. Tomita: Pavane (Ravel) from the album Daphnis & Chloe 1979

The second of my desert island discs is possibly the best blues track I ever heard. I played this as a teenager, over and over again, and have never tired of hearing it. From Fleetwood Mac’s early years, it was the B side to Albatross, another instrumental that showed the expressive power of the electric guitar in the hands of a master – in this case, Peter Green, and on my second disc, Danny Kirwan. Catch the contrast between the blue notes and the happy middle eight.

2. Jigsaw Puzzle Blues – Fleetwood Mac

The guitar is an instrument I have been playing for almost fifty years. I’m still pretty mediocre, despite a period as a professional bass player.

Guitars, voices and songs

I wondered if I might take a guitar with me to the island. In the interests of not driving myself crazy with frustration and rage at my own inability to play as well as I’d like, it will be better that I don’t. Instead, a track featuring one of my favourite guitarists of all time, Ritchie Blackmore. The band Deep Purple produced the most incredible quality music, not least due to the influence of Jon Lord. In my time as a bass player, I owned a Rickenbacker that was supposed to have belonged to Roger Glover of the same band. The vocalist Ian Gillan is most closely associated with Deep Purple, but for me, the greatest voice for Blackmore’s guitar belonged to David Coverdale. Here they both are, doing what they both do best.

3. Soldier of Fortune – Deep Purple (Stormbringer)

My work took me around the world, where I would often be working shifts in the air-conditioned sterility of the computer room, waiting for code to compile and link. In the splendid isolation of those places, I often listened to cassette tapes through headphones, loud. One artist that accompanied me in that place during an extended trip to Seattle was Joni Mitchell, whose album Blue was played end to end, stopping only half way through to turn the tape around. My island disc from that album features the delicious sound of the Appalachian Dulcimer.

4. A Case of You – Joni Mitchell

Songs of significance

I have never hung on to my career at all costs, preferring to recognise that a point has been reached where further progress is impossible, further contribution wasted and that a new path beckons. These points have often featured significant songs or music and the next track is an example. I used it as the introduction to a corporate presentation shortly before I left the corporation.

5. That’s what I’ll do – Robert Cray

In a similar way, I found the music of Omar Faruk Tekbilek to be significant, drawn as I was at the time to Islam. As Muhammad Bilal, I spent a number of years with that faith and as part of that community, the Ummah. The imam at my local mosque had a beautiful singing voice and would often lead the singing of a naat, a poem in praise of the Prophet. One in particular, I still sometimes catch myself singing the chorus of: Mustafa Jaan-e-Rehmat Pe Laakhon Salaam.

“Islam” means “peace” and I found a peace here that I hadn’t experienced before, in the prayer and the respect for all, men and women, “sons of Abraham”, for nature, for knowledge and science. It breaks my heart to see how the great religion that Islam is, can be so sullied by the actions of lunatics, dead cultural habits and the ignorant. Here, the music and lyrics of Omar Faruk Tekbilek are evocative of a place of peace for the Muslim, particularly the spiritual Sufi, a garden.

6. Manhem – Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Growing up

I have now spent a significant part of my adult life in Scotland. I consider it to be my home, with all of its strange cultures and heritages, most of which are imports. The pipes, originating as they did in Egypt, are perhaps iconic for Scottish culture and there is nothing so stirring as hearing the massed pipes and drums of a decent rendering of Highland Cathedral. The tune is, of course, written by a couple of Germans, which I think is funny. I don’t want any of that on the island. What I will have is a single track by Matt Rach, a young French guitarist whose talent I am insanely jealous of and whose music, whether covers or his own material, is quite exceptionally, furiously, good. This one will do: it’s his cover of the theme from Rosemary’s Baby.

7. Rosemary’s Baby Theme – Matt Rach

Immortality

My final track seems to the perfect synthesis of the music I have loved the most, crossing cultural, religious and national boundaries in a way that digs deep into my psyche. I can do nothing when I hear this but close my eyes and listen to it. It was written by the cellist Joceyln Pook for Akram Khan’s DESH, a full-length contemporary dance solo. I have never seen the dance. I like to think that this unresolved rift in the balance of harmony in my life makes me immortal.

8. Ave Maria (DESH): Jocelyn Pook

The book

I am free of God now but recognise the value of values and the power of prayer. There is no peace like the peace of the mosque; no hope so vain as the hope of salvation; no service but that which is given unconditionally and without recognition. That said, I have no need of the religious or philosophical Book: neither the Bible nor Qu’ran are any use to me now. If I need fiction, I have the complete works of Shakespeare, altogether more credible a read.

I was thinking that I might take for my own choice Sun Tzu’s Art of War. If I have nobody to fight a war with but myself it may offer a route to greater self-awareness. However, I have settled on a brilliant little book that will keep me occupied and mentally stimulated until I am rescued from the island: The Chicken from Minsk: And 99 Other Infuriating Brainteasers. I was recommended this book several years ago and finally bought one, second-hand, for a penny. To give you a flavour of the book, from the back cover:

Besides chess playing and problem solving, drinking is and always has been the most common form of recreation in Russia. Vassily has acquired a 12 litre bucket of vodka and wishes to share it with Pyotr. However, all Pyotr has is an empty 8 litre bottle and an empty 5 litre bottle. How can the vodka be divided evenly?

The Luxury item and the One Disc I’d Save

I was considering an Appalachian Dulcimer, so that I could learn to play “A Case of You” – the one disc I would save from the waves if I had to – but realised that I would probably break the strings quite quickly. A longer-lasting luxury, depending on how much I am permitted to have of this, would be writing and sketching materials. Writing is the one thing I have never tired of: and when I do, I tend to sketch. Not very well, but like the guitar playing, well enough for my own entertainment.

Which is probably good news for the other inhabitants of the island.

Declaration of Independence

Hoots, mon, old chap.
Hoots, mon, old chap.

A while ago, an old friend from my Sussex days posted on Facebook, “When are you coming home?”. My response, to the applause of the crowd, was, “I am home”. I love Scotland, or at least parts of it, and she has been quite kind to me since I came here in 1991 for what I had intended to be a maximum of 6 months.

I migrated involuntarily to Scotland 23 years ago out of economic necessity. My pedigree is not dissimilar to your average mongrel although I do have strong roots back 200 years through my American father’s line to the Hoods of Dumfries. I am as proud of my heritage as I am of anything else I have no control over, like my height. “Proud” in the sense that I recognise it as my good fortune and something I should (and do) take full advantage of.

Something else I inherited from my father was his intolerance of pretension, although I think I can run with a line so far, before rebelling (this trait from the Bourne family, my mother’s genetic base). This is what I often refer to as the “F*ck it” point.

I have reached this point in the debate over Scotland’s independence. Listening carefully to both sides of the argument, I have found no imperative nor evidence to support the action of severing the leg we stand on in the United Kingdom. Neither the leg nor the amputee would fare well, although I suspect that the economic reality of our population distribution, one-eighth of it in London and 91% not in the metaphorical leg, the UK-not-including-Scotland will survive.

The vote in September is going to be made with people’s heads, hearts and the (m)asses.

To intellectualise the argument, there is no economic or political advantage for Scotland to cede from the rest of the UK: our UK research investment, world investment, finance investment, European investment would be damaged substantially. Alec Salmond, clever cookie that he might be, has failed to convince anyone’s head that a Yes vote is in anyone’s interests.

Hearts will be bursting with nationalistic emotion, the halls and glens still echoing to the skirl of pipes and the choruses of “Caledonia” and “Flùr na h-Alba” at the end of the Glasgow games and the SNP will be hoping for a “games effect”  just in time for the referendum in September.

Finally, there is, despite all the hype, door-knocking, state-funded leafleting and propaganda, the most powerful political force of all: the disinterest of the masses. Here is the greatest vote, if not actually for the status quo, but against the change in it. For same reason I didn’t engage with the rubbish waiter in the rubbish restaurant I had lunch in yesterday when he asked if everything was all right, people don’t feel sufficiently interested in revolution or changing things for the better to engage in the argument. This is why you see a predominance of “Yes” stickers all over the place. There is the sense that to dissent from the nationalist zeitgeist is somehow anti-Scottish, not something to be in times of Nationalist fervour.

Well, I am at the F*ck it point with this debate. Blame my breeding. I am going to vote against independence: because I love Scotland (parts of it); because there’s no argument for it that even remotely sounds convincing to me; because as part of the UK, Scotland punches above its weight and I like that; and because it’s right to stand up against Nationalism in this insidious form. I declare my independence.

La vie d’Adèle

lVAI was loaned a DVD over the weekend as a distraction from an untidy pile of work which has been bugging me lately. The film seemed to be a bit long for a single sitting – 3 hours – so I kept the last hour for Saturday breakfast.

La Vie d’Adèle (Chapitres 1 et 2) is a Palme d’Or winning film written, produced and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. The story is based upon a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Le bleu est une couleur chaude (Blue is the warmest color, the name of the film in English). The story is one of growing up as the eponymous Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, left in the picture) concludes her school career before embarking on teaching. The crucial role of the teacher in bringing alive literature in particular and interest in the world generally is played out as a sub theme to the synchronous plot of Adèle’s coming to terms with her sexuality. She makes mistakes – I thought her career choice was lazy – and suffers the consequences. The character presents as gauche and naïve despite her raw passion. Emma (Léa Seydoux, right) finds a muse for her art in Adèle but always remains the grown-up in their relationship.

The storytelling in the film is masterful, with Kechiche taking his time to bring out the nuances in each scene, never taking the procedural approach to capturing the moment, always letting it run. For some this may be irritating but if you can, watch this film and take your time to feel the moments as they unfold. If this film doesn’t make you sob, you haven’t been paying attention.

Readings

invictusSo, why am I publishing poetry readings? Simply because I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please and heard a rendering of Blake’s The Tyger that I thought – well, not very good. I love Blake’s verse and found myself shouting at the radio (I’m the kind of guy that shouts at inanimate objects) at the failure of the reader to make any real attempt to put a little passion into it. As is a common occurrence for a man with my over-inflated sense of his own capabilities, I thought I could do better.

So here are a few attempts to do better. Not being objective about how my own voice sounds to others, I wonder if they are any good. I’m not seeking flattery, but would appreciate your thoughts as to whether I should do any more, or stop now before I make other people shout at their computers.

If you don’t comment, don’t complain if I post more.