Art

This category contains 34 posts

In The Bleak Midwinter: Nick Duffy chooses five books to counteract the ghastly bonhomie

Christ but it’s awful.  Between the more-inappropriate-then-ever exhortations to excessive consumption (“Battery turkey?  You tasteless plebeian fiend, simply everyone’s having rare-breed Guinea Fowl with Nigella’s gingerbread-and-rollmop stuffing this year,” fuck off why don’t you, don’t you know there’s a recession on?) and the terrible music everywhere (and how much must it suck to be Jona Lewie?  11 months of the year, nobody knows who you are, then for one month EVERYONE knows EXACTLY who you are, and they all think you’re a cunt), and the pubs being full of godamned amateurs (“Oooh, is it that much for a gin and tonic?” Yes, yes it is, as you’d be well aware if you’d BEEN IN SINCE FUCKING BUDGET NIGHT, and by the way, I’ve been keeping this place going and wearing my own personal arse-groove into that barstool these past 11 months, get out of my FUCKING way and take your novelty waistcoat with you, you nebbish) and…well, you need something to counteract it all.  Literature is, as always, your friend, and what you specifically need is some good, bleak stuff you can get morose and gloomy over.  And that’s what I plan to give you, good and hard.

1. Martin Amis, Night TrainMartin Amis

An unlikely source, Amis Jnr., as he normally leavens even the weightiest subjects with dextrous, scabrous comedy in a perfect mix of the broad-brush and the filigree (some other time, try Money, London Fields and Success for some of the finest comic writing of the 20th century), but this brief yet absorbing novella (partially inspired by David Simon’s Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, The Wire fans) abjures laughs for terse, cold, hard boiled meditations on murder and suicide as responses to being alone in a godless universe.

KEY QUOTE: “You key the mike and you get the squawk that no one wants: Check suspicious odor. I have checked suspicious odors. Suspicious? No. This is blazing crime. Fulminant chemistry of death, on the planet of retards. I’ve seen bodies, dead bodies, in tiled morgues, in cell-blocks, in district lockups, in trunks of cars, in project stairwells, in loading-dock doorways, in tractor-trailer turnarounds, in torched rowhouses, in corner carryouts, in cross alleys, in crawlspaces, and I’ve never seen one that sat with me like the body of Jennifer Rockwell, propped there naked after the act of love and life, saying even this, all this, I leave behind.”

2. Neville Shute, On The Beach

Being Shute’s second most famous novel after the heart-warming, life-affirming A Town Like Alice, it gives me a schadenfreudegasm to think of all the people who followed that work with this one, and what a slap in the psyche they must have experienced.  OK, from the outset it’s clear this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs – the whole premise is that a nuclear war has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and backwoods, distant, late-50s Australia, with it’s colonial, repressed, provincial natives and a few accidental refugees, is the only habitable place left, and that only until the weather brings the poison south – but the sheer relentlessness of it, the way Shute refuses to offer any salvation or escape, just calmly narrates a group of basically decent people’s journey to a horrible, inescapable fate, adds up to one of the most despairing books ever, which will reduce even hardened cynics to tears.

KEY QUOTE: “He undid the little carton and took out the vial. “This is a dummy,” he said. “these aren’t real. Goldie gave it me to show you what to do.  You just take one of them with a drink – any kind of drink.  Whatever you like best. And then you just lie back, and that’s the end.”
“You mean, you die?” The cigarette was dead between her fingers.
He nodded. “When it gets too bad – it’s the way out.”
“What’s the other pill for?” she whispered.
“That’s a spare,” he said. “I suppose they give it you in case you lose one of them, or funk it.””

3. Grant Morrison, Doom PatrolDoom Patrol Jane never painted again Grant Morrison

You wouldn’t think that a comic book about robot men, psychic superheroes, alien invasions and so forth would fit into this kind of list.  You’d be wrong.  Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is full of self-aware post-modern fun with the conventions of the spandex-and-fighting genre, but is bookended by two issues which redefine grim, bleak and pitiless.

Cliff From Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Slow, elegaic, fatalistic…a lot of people seemed to miss the point of this book – a quasi-sci-fi tale of clones, bred to provide organs for donation, and doomed to an early and grisly death – asking “why didn’t they rebel and run away?”  To me, it’s an extended meditation on the fact that the defining characteristic of humanity is that we don’t run away from our fate, or scream in alarm; whether in Srebrenica, Sobibor or Surbiton, we accept the hand we’re given and make the best we can of it, and support each other down the long, cold, final road.

KEY QUOTE: “Perhaps we’d have been happy if things had stayed that way for a lot longer; if we could have whiled away more afternoons chatting, having sex, reading aloud and drawing.  But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn’t keep putting things off indefinitely.”

5. Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez

Any of Raymond’s works would have filled this slot, especially those from the Factory series, pitiless police procedurals that make Ian Rankin at his gloomiest look like an episode of Midsomer Murders.  This one edges it (beyond He Died With His Eyes Open and How The Dead Live – yeah, he didn’t mess about disguising the bleakness, old DR) just for the endlessly grim, hopeless, despairing tone, they way even our nameless cop anti-hero can’t kid himself he’s saving the world, he just wants to save some last vestige of his own belief in truth, if it’s – and it probably is – the last thing he does.  If you want a thoroughly depressing musical accompaniment for all this, hunt down the author and Gallon Drunk’s part-audiobook, part-soundtrack-to-a-film-that-could-never-be-made album.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

KEY QUOTE: “Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once…I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up” – Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files

Play Dough a Go Go!

Play dough is brilliant.  Practically free and endless possibilities.  Plus it lets kids do the whole messy play thing without actually making that much mess, which is always a good thing.Plus if you use the cheap home made version you don’t need to worry about mixing the colours.  I start off with a variety of basic colours (usually based on whatever colourings I have to hand) and then let the kids make further colours by mixing.


Child playing with multicoloured playdough made by an easy homemade recipe

There are a few recipes knocking about the internet, with various no cook options or ingredients, but this is the best one that I have used.  Where I say cup, use any cup, as long as you use the same one each time.  I use a little plastic beaker.Use your common sense and don’t play with playdough on your best tablecloth or tread it into your expensive persian rug, but then if you have that kind of thing in a house with small children then you are a braver (and possibly quite a bit richer) person than me…


Home Made Play Dough

  • 2 cups flour (any will do)
  • Half a cup of salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • A big spoon (or small glug) of oil – any will do
  • Two big spoons of cream of tartar (you can leave this out if you like, but it makes the dough more springy and stretchy and only costs a few pence)
  • Food colouring, smelly oil (use food safe versions in case it gets nibbled…), glitter or whatever else you want to use to make it pretty and/or smelly

Chuck everything in a pan and put over a low heat.  Keep stirring until it looks like…dough.  Allow to cool before giving to children (obviously…)

You can also just add boiling water to the ingredients in a bowl and stir, to avoid having to put it on the hob.

I tend to leave out the colourings and flavourings, cook plain dough and then knead in the colours/flavours/glitter.  That way I only have to cook once but can make loads of colours.  Beware though that colourings can stain, and are much more likely to stain your worktop (and hands, and clothes, and children) before they are mixed in.

This recipe isn’t toxic, but isn’t exactly edible either, given that it will taste horrible and has loads of salt.  Hopefully inquisitive toddlers will just have one taste and then be put off.  Hopefully.

Keep your playdough in an air tight container and it should last at least six weeks.  Enjoy, and let me know if you come up with any cool ideas!

SkyFall – Does “M” stand for Mother?

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was “For your eyes only”, in case you’ve never seen it, it’s a film where a ginger comedian / assassin looks for a giant calculator. Highlights include a talking parrot commanding a sexually aroused Margaret Thatcher to “give us a kiss” and in the pre-credit sequence our hero kills a disabled person by dropping him down an industrial chimney stack from a helicopter, the disabled man’s screams then morph into a sexy love song while Sheena Easton writhes out the credits.

I was 5 years old.

It is definitely one of my favourite films ever.

At the time I had never seen skiing before, let alone someone skiing down a luge run whilst fighting stuntmen. I had never seen mountain climbing before – a still exciting assault with Art Garfunkel? (see picture) on the mountaintop monastery St Cyril’s, or the old smugglers trick with cashew nuts or two unbelievably beautiful women throwing themselves at a middle aged pun merchant wearing a polo neck (actually one of them was just a sexually promiscuous child who Bond, quite sensibly, spurns and then offers to buy an ice cream). It was a crazy winter-olympics-mediterranean-diving-holiday adventure, a mishmash of what was hot at the time, culminating in Bond throwing the object he has spent the entire film chasing off a mountain. So all a bit pointless really. Luckily though they end on a high: a parrot talking dirty to Thatcher whilst Bond goes skinny dipping with a greek orphan.

Classic entertainment.

You see, the thing about the Bond franchise is that Post-Connery it didn’t take itself seriously for a very long time; from “invisible cars” to Roger Moore’s karate, it coasted along with a knowing wink – Bond’s casual indifference to killing only palatable because they never suggested it was real. Let’s not forget, Lazenby aside, for all the exotic travelling there was rarely any emotional journey at all; the man who started the mission was the man who ended the mission.

But indifference isn’t cool anymore. Gone is the is the casual shruggery of by-gone heroes, the men with nothing to lose, nothing to be threatened with. Today’s audience need good old fashioned motivation. Peril isn’t really peril if there is no emotional investment in the character and in the action genre it’s vital, it’s the difference between Cobra and Rocky – the audience only feel the thrill of victory, they only cry, with one of those films.

Spectacle can no longer distract from dodgy plots and poor characterisation.

In short, these days it has to take itself seriously.

So what to say about SkyFall, the 23rd film in the mega-franchise, following 2008’s universally disappointing Quantum of Crapness?

Well, what a difference 4 years can make. Sam Mendes has delivered a film with that most elusive of qualities: balance. We have an original story, a character arc and some serious acting talent including Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Judi Dench’s M, who is given a more pivotal role than the usual “scowls and exposition”. There’s a genuinely creepy but ultimately well motivated Javier Bardem, the man with the golden mullet, playing unhinged cyber terrorist Silva and a new Q in Ben Whishaw, a move which at first suggests that MI6 are recruiting their quartermasters from One Direction or Skins but which we become quickly comfortable with. Most importantly though, we are given the man himself – Daniel Craig’s Bond. Gone is the glacial, invulnerable super-spy and in his place a conflicted, driven, human being: Does he walk away or does he stay and risk his life defending the woman who has no compunction about sending him to his death?  And how much of his decision has to do with the loss of his own parents? Does M stand, in some way, for Mother?

Craig is good at unspoken dialogue, with no mention of what has gone before in the previous 2 films, his Bond wears regret, loss and sheer emotional mileage on his granite face, a far cry from Moore’s levitating eyebrows.

The requisite action sequences, from the candle lit ‘dragon’ casino to the stygian murk of the last act’s caledonian siege, are convincing, gorgeously shot and refreshingly diverse in palette; the gadgets almost non-existent and for all the usual outcry about product placement there is only one really obvious one that grates. The ending is surprisingly touching and closes the circle nicely.

With enough nods to the past to keep the die-hards happy and enough depth to ensure Bond’s future it is a well balanced entry in to the Bond canon – there is little doubt that James Bond will return.

Watching All Of Shakespeare: Ground Rules and Confessions

Confession first: I haven’t seen much Shakespeare.

Lots of people have probably seen less, but they’re probably not very bothered. I feel like I really should have.

I’ve studied English Literature at post-compulsory level off and on for over two decades (although admittedly without getting any meaningful qualification), got to the semi-finals of Mastermind twice, and been quite willing to argue with people about Shakespeare and quote him. I’ve got a sort of Roger Craig type knowledge – I can identify all the most famous quotations, probably even give you a precis of the plots of most of them, but as far as ACTUALLY HAVING SEEN them, on stage or screen, as far as I recall I’ve ticked off:

Hamlet
Macbeth
King Lear
Titus Andronicus
Twelfth Night
Midsummer Nights Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming Of The Shrew
Richard III
Henry V
Julius Caesar

And that’s it. Maybe they were all bluffing it as well, but I’m sure most of the people I’ve done Eng Lit courses with had seen more than that. Christ, I’ve never even seen Othello, or Merchant Of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet (I got about half an hour into the Baz Luhrman thing before metaphorically putting my foot through the screen and sending him the bill). Romeo and Juliet! There’s undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who’ve seen three versions of Romeo and Juliet, for Christ’s sake. I’m pretty sure I’ve written essays on others not on that list, and got fairly good grades, but I’ve not actually watched them. Maybe excerpts, but not all the way through.

This has to change.

So – and this is basically me muscling in on one of the entries on my wife’s “Things to do before turning 30” list, which gives us a deadline of 4th January 2015 – we’re going to watch it all.

A few ground rules:

1. Only original text versions. Obviously there’s much dispute about what the original text even is, I’m not going to get excessively anal and insist on unabridged first folio versions or something, but no modernised language versions, or “based on an idea by” stuff. There’s some excellent stuff of that nature – I saw a really good Othello update set in the Metropolitan Police with Christopher Ecclestone a few years back, and Neil Gaiman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty damned peerless, but you’ve got to have rules. Start letting Throne Of Blood in and next thing you’re counting Ten Things I Hate About You, and before you know it you’re ticking off Hamlet because the child watched The Fucking Lion King – AGAIN – while you were in the room.

2. The list I’m using is this:

All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s DreamA picture of William Shakespeare, who is the focus of this challenge
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Tempest
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Winter’s Tale
Cymbeline
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry V
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Henry VIII
King John
Pericles
Richard II
Richard III
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus
Hamlet
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Macbeth
Othello
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida

I know there’s others attributed, but that’s what I’m going with. It seems generally accepted and lets face it the world’s not going to end if I’ve missed one. 3. “Watched” means that. It can be stage or screen, amateur or professional, but it has to be watched, radio versions don’t count. Why this will be of interest to anyone is beyond me, but there it is. We currently have David Tennant’s Hamlet, Al Pacino’s Merchant Of Venice and a Globe version of Othello on the TiVo, any recommendations welcomed but not necessarily followed. BRING ON THE BARD.

Our Man in Hong Kong: Part Zero – Travel

iphone joystick attachment, as found in Hong Kong.  Image:achipinthesugar

While I am a bit disappointed that this city isn’t awash with crazy video games, there’s little bits of evidence that it’s in the blood more than in the UK.
While the folks back home count frame rates and polygons, these people are looking for ways to make the small things a little better.

While I’m not keen to go down the “isn’t it hilarious how they get the words wrong” route, seriously, just look at it.

Carrot Data Hoodie on child in Hong Kong

Spectacular.

Stuff The Jubilee

Bin the crownIt’s not happening until June, but I’m seriously fed up with the Diamond Jubilee already.

I make absolutely no effort to find out anything about it, yet every time I turn on the TV, browse the internet, walk down the street, read a newspaper, go to a pub or a shop, even go to work, it’s being rammed down my throat so hard it makes me sick.

Ironically, the propaganda churned out by the Royal press machine to brainwash the population that these celebrations are worthwhile has served only to increase my opposition. The more I am encouraged to take part in and enjoy the jubilee celebrations, the less I want to. I’ve always had anti-monarchist tendencies, but ever since the ridiculous charade of the Royal Wedding last summer, my Republican views have grown ever stronger.

But let’s remember that wonderful day last April – wasn’t it just the Wedding of The Century? Britain at it’s best?

Kate’s lovely dress! Will’s dashing uniform! Their kiss! The carriage! The flag waving school children! An extra bank holiday! A nation united!

Bollocks. What a ridiculous fuss over the marriage of two people we don’t know and we are unlikely to ever meet. I can’t understand why there was such adulation over two people, who, if they were not obliged to, would not give a flying fart about 99% of those who profess to love them. Millions of pounds spent on security that could have been better spent elsewhere. The unconvincing attempts to portray a public schoolgirl of millionaire parents as a People’s Princess. The totally one-sided sycophantic 24/7 media coverage. Or the baffling obsession with Pippa Middleton. I wouldn’t. (No offence Pippa, if you’re reading this).

And we’re getting it all again…

The Queen’s wonderful service to the nation! The concert at Buckingham Palace! Kate’s charity work! Harry larking around (he’s such a card)! William protecting the Falklands! The barge parade on the River Thames! The flag waving school children! The community spirit! Street parties bringing the nation together! An extra bank holiday! The economic benefits to our struggling economy!

The last one is rather questionable. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that each bank holiday costs the UK £2.3 billion and the Diamond Jubilee is no exception. Even the government’s own impact assessment for the extra bank holiday states that “inevitably there will be an impact on economic output as most workers are likely to be given the day off by their employer”.

Of course it’s not all about the economy though. In a further attempt to justify the celebrations, the impact assessment gushes that there will be a lifting of national spirit, improved national identity and increased profile of the UK to the rest of the world, extra tourism and trade, etc (it actually says etc). These benefits are naturally all intangible though and are impossible to accurately predict or measure. Isn’t that convenient?

Leaving aside the Jubilee for a moment, the arguments for and against the monarchy have been well documented over the years. For: history/national pride/tourism. Against: cost/undemocratic/inequality.

Much better writers than me have debated these arguments in detail so I don’t intend to discuss them here, but what I do want to do is highlight a few of the many recent royal stories that have attracted my attention.

The first one concerns our Brave Prince William, who was recently sent to the Falkland Islands to fly a helicopter around.

anti-monarchyI quote Rear Admiral John ‘Sandy’ Woodward: “To have a Royal anywhere near the front line is a bloody nuisance for the rest of the front line. You have to take extra precautions that he doesn’t get shot down, that his plane doesn’t fail. You maintain it three times as carefully. If you have a Royal on board your ship it is the end of your career if he gets so much as a scratch. It’s never said, but it goes without saying. He’s not there as a military man, he is there as air sea rescue which is really not military at all. It’s civil. I think it’s pointless, I can’t imagine why they sent him. Maybe they were just trying to wind up the Argentinians, I don’t know.”

My personal view is that this was a marketting exercise ahead of the Jubilee to increase our pride in the Royal Family and for them to highlight their usefulness to the nation – but then I am a cynical bastard.

Without question this episode demonstrates the blatant inequalities created by the very existence of a Royal Family: one man’s life valued much higher than that of the Joe Nobody’s around him, simply because he was born into a family of privilege.

Further evidence of these inequalities was recently provided by Buckingham Palace itself.

The Royal Household advertised for a trainee butler to serve the Royal Family. The salary is £15000 for a 45 hour week.

The job’s duties include: “collect and deliver tea/coffee trays, breakfast trays and newspapers for Royal and Household purposes in an efficient and discreet manner” and “to be responsible for the valeting of guests and Members of the Royal Household invited to stay with the Royal Family ensuring that clothes and uniforms are cared for to the highest standards”.

Christ, this doesn’t half boil my piss. It’s England in 2012, and we still have people serving other people. Masters and servants. This needs to stop right away. Let them carry their own trays, pick up their own newspapers and wash their own clothes like everyone else.

And they want us to celebrate this shit?

 

ZX Spectrum – Eighties icon

Keyboard30 years ago this week the ZX Spectrum was released upon the unsuspecting Eighties; very quickly it claimed a huge chunk of market share and many happy hours of my childhood. At £125 it was cheaper than it’s rivals and looked it; anyone that has ever used one will still miss the iconic grey rubber keys with their bouncy/sticky feedback, the rainbow slash, the separate tape player and that signature tune as the screen border flashed and frazzled whilst loading some of the most wonderfully BASIC computer games ever devised. Yes kids you had to wait for a program to load back then, there was none of this instant clicking of icons, you had to load software via tape cassette every time you wanted to use it. A full 5 minutes of growing excitement with only a heavily pixellated screen still for company – it was almost always worth it. Released during the employment famine of the early eighties when £125 was a proper investment, it was the enfant terrible of Clive Sinclair, later knighted for his efforts. His mission was simple and audacious: to bring home computers into the UK mass market. He achieved this by keeping the price down and giving us the barest of bones: a black box of RAM and a tiny processor. And I do mean tiny. To give you some idea of the genesis of the home computer and a snapshot of how far the PC has come, I am tapping this article out on a MacAir which has a processor speed of 1.7GHz and SDRAM memory of 4Gb – very modest by today’s standards. In 1982 my ZX Spectrum had a processor speed of around 3.5MHz and an 8-bit memory, in other words my laptop is getting on for 500 times faster and with a staggering 4,000,000,000 times more SDRAM memory.

JetPac game loading screen

The loading screen.....

And yes of course my laptop has many features that the “Speccie” didn’t have, but it doesn’t have the kinky rubber keys, it doesn’t run on a computer language so basic it was actually called BASIC: a language so easy to programme in, that at the age of 7, I was writing rudimentary programmes. And that was the real joy, it was a computer designed for you to tinker with, to see what you could make it do. It willingly led you behind the curtain, admitted there was no great Oz and said it doesn’t matter, tell me what to do and I will do it, my limitations are your challenges. It trusted you. Weekly magazines were available which published lines of code that were there, ostensibly, for you to change anyway you wanted. A generation of coders became very talented at getting around the limitations of the hardware, producing classic games like Horace and the Spiders, Manic Miner and my personal favourite: JetPac.

When the more powerful machines came along the UK had already grown some very talented programmers with a real problem solving mentality, well placed to take advantage of the burgeoning software market and the unstoppable tide of the games consoles.

spectrum 16k

A proper rubber fetish.....

And then, in the late eighties, admitting that it’s time was up, the black slab of dreams wished them well and went the way of all computers. But unlike other computers, the ZX Spectrum still retains something that has never been seen since, surely the most elusive quality for any computer: charm.

A Book or eBook?

E-reader and Paperback Book. Photo: IslesPunkFan

I used to believe in the humble book. There was a time I was certain that nothing could come between us and our fistfuls of musky scented yellow pages; that undeniable sense of character imparted by time and the tender hands of countless companions. Somehow I was sure that no matter how technologically advanced we became, nothing could possibly replace an authentic and unassuming hard cover.

There’s something deeply romantic about the book; a physical collection of words and sentiments, whose compilation is tangible evidence that as a people, we have existed. Through the book we happily accept the love and laughter, tears and tragedies of others; a testament to the human condition. Then when we’re done, we pass it on so that those words that shook us might wake the senses of a new reader. In that moment when we hand it over, we send our own story wordlessly with it; an unspoken yet undeniable shared history that can be sensed in the margins of every page. The happy knowledge that the leaves you now turn have been caressed by some number of others, binding you with your humanity, like the linking fingers of a best friend.

I was wrong, of course. I have always been, above all else, embarrassingly naive. How green to imagine that, while the rest of the world became increasingly clinical, uninterested in their brother and the intimacy of breathing someone else’s air, the defenceless book could survive. No one wants to own something that’s been handled by an unfamiliar other any more. We want to live apart. Possess our own things. Selfishly believe the world is ours; that we are the only one. Populations are booming, but even as we’re forced to dwell on top of one another, moving ever higher into an unconquered sky, we are slamming tight our shutters.

Needless to say, there will always be stories. We’re too governed by ego to let the story die; we see ourselves in every narrative and our sense of self importance is affirmed. But books and stories, those words that were once synonymous, are about to be broken apart. Driven by our need for efficiency, we can now download our own version of the texts we wish to read. These days we need not even leave the house. What a blow of cruel irony when the interwebs adopted the phrase connectivity.

Like so many things, it’s come to pass that every book you own can be uniquely yours; you read it once but do not pass it on. The pages are ever crisp and white; untarnished as a surgeon’s scalpel. But the romance is gone. In our hunger for perfection and instant gratification we have sliced off and slaughtered the glorious romance.

It’s been estimated that within this decade, electronic books will have completely replaced commercially available paper publications. There are of course, many advantages to the electronic book. Affordability is one; for the time being, they are certainly cheaper. Owning an electronic reader also means you can have countless titles at your finger tips. Many people are also citing the environmental card, claiming that the e book is better for the environment. I’m not sure I buy this one. While I’ve done exactly no research on the subject, I can’t believe the process involved with constructing these little gadgets is particularly sparing on the fossil fuels.

What do you think about our move toward electronic books?

Have you taken the leap to e-reader?

How do you feel about the humble hard cover being made redundant?

Tony Bennett: Keeping The Music Playing

“If you study the masters – Picasso, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire – right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older.” So said the great Tony Bennett in 1999, at the age of seventy-two, when he had already had what could be fairly described as a good professional innings. Thirteen years later and not far off eighty-six, Bennett, “the world’s most boyish octogenarian”, is certainly busy and still has a schedule that would make even a busy twentysomething artist think: “Where the hell does he get his energy?”

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Tony Bennett

Bennett has just released “Duets II: The Great Performances” on DVD. And what a selection of great performances it is! This is a visual companion to the CD that was released last year, “Duets II”, winning a Grammy and shooting straight to No.1 in the Billboard charts. Featuring collaborations with artists as diverse as Michael Buble (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) and Aretha Franklin (“How Do You Keep The Music Playing”), this shows a singer who is equally at home with fellow legends from an earlier era and modern entertainers. He is also clearly comfortable duetting with singers whose voices are of different styles – how many other artists could sing with Andrea Bocelli (“Stranger in Paradise”), Lady Gaga (“The Lady is a Tramp”) , Mariah Carey (“When Do The Bells Ring for Me”) and John Mayer (“One for the Road”) and still stamp their own personality on each track? That’s testament to Bennett’s immense talent and sixty-plus years of recording – to give you an idea of the span of his career, he has performed for nine U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama.

The release also features a gorgeous “Body and Soul” with the late Amy Winehouse, whose early death (this was her final recording) makes listening to this particularly poignant. Their voices work together so brilliantly, too, and that alone is tear-jerking enough.

Bennett / LatifahParticularly beautiful from this collection of tracks is the rendition of “Who Can I Turn To?” which Bennett performs with Queen Latifah. The lush orchestral score and twinkling piano provide a bed as warm and smooth as a velvet hot water bottle for their voices – and a brief, ringing trumpet solo – to soar majestically over. (Incidentally, this is a track that my favourite jazz artist, the great Bill Evans, performed many times throughout his career, and this got me thinking about the excellent collaborations Evans did with Bennett in the mid-to-late 1970s. If you haven’t heard any of the tracks, here is a little taster for you.

If you want to see Tony Bennett perform – and, after seeing the tracks from this DVD, I’m sorely tempted myself! – then you’ll get the chance in a few months, because he’s coming to the UK for a tour!  He’s playing six dates in England and Scotland in June and July, bringing his unique vocal style to London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester.

Tony Bennett’s “Duets II: The Great Performances” is available now.

The Magic of Reading

adults reading Harry PotterI’ve never really understood the depth of bad feeling that “proper readers” have towards “grown-ups” reading Harry Potter books, it smacks of adolescent elitism and a condemnatory bias based on a book’s sleeve (Hey there should be a saying about that?) for surely by their own logic they couldn’t have read the books themselves? So it’s hardly the strongest base from which to attack?

J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series is about to release her new novel “aimed at adults” and I wonder if the Potter snobbery will cling to this new title as well. I will not critique the original books themselves (I’ve only read a couple) beyond saying that I found them hamstrung by their own logic until the point in the story where it was no longer convenient for the plot progression, at which point new rules were added which circumvented the bothersome pre-established rationality – the resulting inconsistencies got right on my tits.

J K Rowling

J K Rowling authour of the Harry Potter Series

But it happens in this particular genre due to the flexible nature of magic (Witness Aslan’s resurrection and the subsequent awkward exposition in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The concept of a normal boy (or girl as in the worst witch series which trod very similar ground over a decade before) finding that they are chosen for a higher destiny undeniably appeals to something primal in all of us, whatever age, it taps in to the hope that we are all special, that the mundanity of our normal lives can be shed: that adventures are waiting for us all. My fondness for this series though, is as a way of reintroducing those that would never normally read a book to the power of fiction. The real magic of the Potter phenomenom was that children and adults were and are picking up books again; they’re discussing characters and motivation,  asking themselves what they would do? Morality, hypotheticals, nomenclature, relationships, adolescence and at a stretch war, racism, betrayal, propaganda, tragedy, love and loss are all in there. What’s not to like? And if that leads someone to pick up another book on a similar theme and then another on less similar theme until they are in the habit of reading then surely it is to be applauded? Often the disinterest or even the fear of reading starts at school where the chosen literature has a profound effect on reading appetites – if reading feels like work then it is work. I would far rather give a class of 11 year olds a Harry Potter book – which for many might be the first real book they read, than say, Wuthering Heights which remains a staple on the curriculum? I don’t know too many 11 year olds that fully appreciate the destructive force of Heathcliffe’s love or the inherent elemental symbolism, in fact, I can see certain children being very confused by such adult subject matter and put off books for a good long while following such a baptism of fire. That doesn’t mean Wuthering Heights is not a far superior book, it just means, perhaps, it’s something to work up to.

Children reading adult books

A recent study suggested that a fifth of teenagers leaving school in the UK cannot read or write, making them virtually unemployable – I can only imagine how angry and scared and let down that must make them feel.

We should try to avoid making the same mistakes as the schools in that we should ask no more than books must be intellectually accessible to their own audience, it is not up to us to judge or dictate that audience.

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