Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rubbing shoulders with Artists

Oh’, I explained to Zadie Smith ,' it’s not difficult but it can be tedious; you just have to keep slogging away, without much progress.’ Zadie had been expressing her admiration for anyone who learned Chinese. Her large brown eyes swivelled towards my classmate, who piped up. ‘And then one day, it suddenly clicks and you get a breakthrough’. Zadie nodded as if she knew exactly what we meant, then laughed and said she’d stick to Italian, as that was difficult enough for her. Remembering my manners, I asked what she was working on at present and learned she’d been awake until 4am finishing a talk she had to deliver in New York the next day. As she moved off, I explained to my friend that the life of a successful writer involved a lot of time-consuming publicity.

Three of my Chinese classmates and I were in a tiny back room of Probsthains bookshop, tucking into refreshments at the launch of a Chinese woodblock exhibition. I was eating sandwiches because I was due to meet R at Cineworld later.

As I reflected on the consolations of obscurity, a Chinese guy with a pony tail squeezed passed. Surely, my friend said, he must be Ma Jian, author of the Chinese novel ‘Red Dust’ .

I asked the He Weimin, the woodblock artist, if he could effect an introduction. We’d talked to him earlier, a very modest young man currently enjoying a residency at the Ashmolean in Oxford. He was pleased that I knew Harbin, the city where he was born. Although he didn’t know the suspected author, he went over and said something. The pony-tailed one began to laugh uproariously and told us he was an artist, but not a writer. That’s another launch in the pipeline, then.

'Long hair and a pony-tail is more or less a sign of artistic non-conformity with Chinese artists, I said to my friend.

More about the artist and images of his work here:

More about Zadie Smith:

An Interview with Ma Jian

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Here's one for a wet Friday:

Crowe and DiCaprio were adequate in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, a film about American counter-terrorism in the middle east. The real star was Mark Strong, playing a kind of Jordanian James Bond with suits to match. His lean grace and brooding glances enhanced every scene he appeared in. Fortunately there were plenty. The plot’s better than ‘Syriana’, in that I could at least follow it. Amazing establishing shots such as barren Afghanistan mountains roads or the high-rise hotels of a Dubai cityscape were impressive, but never overwhelmed the storyline. For me the critique of casual US violence was too muted, and embedded romance was about as credible as DiCaprio speaking fluent Arabic. High-tec satellite monitoring scenes in command headquarters, demonstrated that an eagle’s eye view was nice and safe but not much use when the enemy kicked up a dust storm. This metaphor for the gap between the generals the and ground fighters delivered a trite message in an entertaining format. Torture scenes were grisly but short.

Mixed Reviews on my favourite film website:

This page tells you how to see as many films as you want in London and the UK for £14.99 a month:

Friday, November 28, 2008

Korean Film Night

Most foreign cultural centres in London lay on freebie events, often with food and drink thrown in. It was a choice of orange or apple juice at the film show at the Korean Cultural Institute in the Strand (entrance opposite The Sherlock Holmes pub in Northumberland Ave) . Not very exotic fare, but still very welcoming.

I wouldn’t say the viewing conditions were optimal, either – four shallow steps at one side of a wide hall, with long thin leather –covered cushions. Tip - for the next free screening, (Thurs. Dec 11th, 7pm) arrive early enough to get a seat at the back, where I can lean against the wall, or ask for a chair to put on one side, like the late-comers. It's free but you have to book in advance.

I’ve never seen a bad Korean film, but mostly they’re firmly in the horror genre. ‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’, directed by Joon-ho Bong, is an entertaining slice-of-life comedy about city dwellers. These include an the academic who needs to raise $10,000 bribe to himself into a professorship, his pregnant wife with a craving for walnuts, two hapless shop workers who dream of TV fame and a sinister janitor who may know something about the pets that keep disappearing.

I noticed there was an art exhibition to check out later, with a wonderful semi-translucent jade tea service. I like jade so much I must have been a Chinese Empress in a former life.

I enjoyed the film but was fidgeting by the end, being unused to sitting with my knees drawn up towards my ears. I may have been an Empress in a former life but I don't have the physique for crouching.
Never mind – looking forward to canapés and wine at a Chinese exhibition opening tomorrow.
Here's a Review of the film:
For further info. and to book:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Imagination isn't enough

For a while I thought 'Imagine This' was connected with John Lennon. When I did find out it was a musical set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 that really put me off. I dislike vacuous shows like ‘Mamma Mia’, but this went too far in the opposite direction

I like a bit of triumph over adversity in musicals –it’s almost ‘de rigeur’ for that feel-good effect. The marvellous ‘Zorro’ I enjoyed the other week was based on real events, and ‘Dickens Unplugged’ was a bit of a mishmash but a reasonable reflection of the great man’s protest at social injustice. ‘Imagine This’ would at least have a story. Came a weekend with heavy rain forecast and I thought, ‘Give it a go’.

When I write reviews for websites I can get in free but it’s mainly fringe theatres, or subsidised ones like the Young Vic and The RSC .The ‘price’ is a write-up which seldom takes less than five hours. My contact's ‘affordable’ ticket supply tends to be at short notice and it’s mainly previews or sluggishly-selling matinees. Often front-row seats, though.

I’d asked to be further back after nearly getting my eyebrows singed in ‘Zorro’, but I found that in the New Theatre, Drury Lane, Row D is the front row. R said he missed one key point entirely – a slogan painted on a briefly appearing backdrop. It was because we were looking upwards at an angle. A bit nerve-racking too when the Roman soldiers were using their lances for impromptu kung fu fights- .even more attention-grabbing than Ian MacKellan’s full frontal as ‘King Lear’ in the same theatre.

In fact, ‘Imagine This’ wasn’t half bad as far as staging, costumes, singing and acting went. The plotline, about a troupe that puts on a show to boost morale in the ghetto, about oppression in ancient Rome, was promising; the star-crossed romantic leads were good. The music was weak, though, and in fact the best tune was in the first scene, called ‘The Last Day of Summer, performed by the whole cast, on the great revolving stage, in marvellous thirties costumes. The carousel motif was used cleverly throughout to reflect the theme of recurring historical cycles, rises and falls and the triumph of hope over adversity.

Unfortunately, it didn’t convince me. The second verse of title song, very well delivered by star Peter Polycarpou asked us to imagine a giant statue with a torch rising from the sea. Just in case anyone had missed the pointed reference to the US, one of the cast climbed on a table, draped in a cloth and holding a rolled magazine aloft. No wonder the Americansin the audience liked it, but in light of recent occupations and complaints of oppression it wasn’t exactly tactful. The rest of the audience took it quite well, I think.

There was indeed a strong positive aspect to the play – where people share common bonds and fight a common enemy the mind’s capacity to soar above immediate circumstances is inspiring. Unfortunately, as the outcomes of the double plots made all too clear, the end of suffering is not so uplifting. Ultimately the message of the show seemed Hollywood-inspired and chimed ill with stark realities, however stylistically presented.

'Imagine This' is at the New Theatre, Drury Lane. More about it here:

'Zorro' is at The Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road:

'Dickens Unplugged' is at The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lost in the Mists of Time

I wouldn’t say my arms are my best feature, being short, podgy and freckled. Much of a piece with the rest of me, I suppose, but a future spare-part surgeon would be challenged to find a match in his (presumably frozen) stock.

Aesthetic considerations aside, an out of town car trip and an overnight stay in a bargain hotel chain resulted in additional bright red blotches.

It wasn’t so much the appearance that annoyed me as the constant itching. When, after a week, it was no better, I consulted a GP.

From what I hear I’m lucky, because if I get to my local surgery by 8am I can make an appointment to see a doctor the same morning. That’s if I’m not too fussy about which doctor I see. I’m not; I assume they’re all more or less trained to the same standard and in any case I like to meet different people. As it happened, said the receptionist, I could see Dr X right away.

By the reflected light of his PC, the doctor looked a little pale. I asked him how he felt instead of the other way round and perhaps we got off on the wrong foot. After all, 8am isn’t an unearthly hour. I showed him the problem and asked him if the allergic reaction could be any way connected with the flu and pneumonia jabs I’d been persuaded to have the week before. He looked offended. ‘Unlikely’, he said, moving his eyes back to the screen. It was even more unlikely, in my opinion, having survived 65 years, three of them in the tropics, and never had an allergic reaction before, that they were unconnected.

Let it pass, I thought.

After a glance at the blotches and a verdict of ‘Insect bites’, he typed a prescription. Then he scrutinised me. ‘Do you smoke?’

I told him no. ‘What about in the past?’

‘Oh, only about forty years ago, when it was fashionable.’

His features, never exactly cheery, took on a graver cast.

‘I don’t think smoking was ever fashionable!’ It sounded like a reprimand to frivolity.

I sized him up. He’d be in his mid forties, I guess, the same age as my daughter. He was too young to remember the TV ads of the fifties - ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ - or those Bacall and Bogart films where you could hardly see the stars behind the clouds of cigarette smoke. Not to mention Jack Hawkins and his pipe in ‘The Cruel Sea’. Didn’t he know that medical practice has its fashions, like education? They must keep the historical aspects from them in training.

So I said nothing, but, as R’s mother would have said, ‘thought the more’.

I’m glad he prescribed antihistamine tablets and cortisone cream instead of a course of leeches, though. The problem cleared in three days and my arms were restored to their usual level of unsightliness.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I All Dressed Up

I first met Hannah at the local baths. ‘You do more chatting than swimming’, says R. He doesn’t understand that women can swim and talk at the same time.Hannah commutes from Haringey and swims before going to work. A lay reader, she more or less lives for the church, so I listen, fascinated, to accounts of retreats, sermon preparations and what the bishop said to the other bishop. She’s also kind and funny and brings in all kinds of back-up literature for me to look at.

Last Wednesday R went with me to the ‘Readers’ Quinquennial Eucharist’, at St Pauls, a kind of re-licencing ceremony for lay readers as well as a swearing-in for new ones. I’ve never been inside before, which is probably because there’s a £10 charge for sightseers. It was all very dramatic, and we had good seats under a high side arch to the left of the main arena, under the great dome. The infamous acoustics scrambled the hymns. We could gawp at gold-leafed cupolas and the inside of the dome itself, with its railing.

By chance we were seated alongside a marble statue of a local naval hero, Nelson, on a plinth above smaller figures. To our right was another battle hero, some Marquis who was Governor of Bengal. They're not exactly religious subjects, I thought. On the other hand, these national heroes were no doubt associated with religious inspiration in peoples’ minds at the time.

The only other person on the back row with us was a vicar with a purple shirt, letter-box collar and Lancashire accent. He’d recently been posted to North London from Manchester. ‘You won’t get used to it’, I told him, but he assured me the people were very pleasant. I suppose it makes a difference when you’re a vicar and people habitually defer. He wondered how the England v. Germany match on TV that night was getting on, which I assumed was ‘man of the people’ talk for R’s benefit. He was on a loser there, though, and Roy adroitly changed the subject. The vicar revealed that now he’s in London he has a free pass to St Pauls, which was the least I'd expect. He said he too had been a lay reader before becoming a priest, and when I asked him was it a natural progression he said no, he’d resisted, but his own vicar had said he had a vocation.

This reminded me of Francis Thompson's poem 'The Hound of Heaven' :
'I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;I fled Him, down the arches of the years;I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter.'

An officious usher or ‘wandsman’, told him off for trying to take a photograph.

I was astonished to hear R say St Pauls was built on the bones of our ancestors. I wonder if all the regalia and ceremony was getting up his nose and provoking a kind of displaced anti-royalism, as he’s usually so discreet. Apart from the visual splendour and the singing, plus a short but topical sermon by the Bishop of London, there was the dramatic dialogue during the service. It’s designed, I suppose, to check out the aspiring readers’ resolution, a bit like the marriage ceremony when they have to declare any impediments, except there were more questions along the lines of ‘Will you endeavour to fashion your life according to the way of Christ?’To which they had to answer : By the grace of God, I willAfter the ceremony there was general mingling and photo-calls, the Bishop of London happy to pose with his crook alongside groups. I was pleased to find Hannah alongside a minor bishop. She’s uncharacteristically stern in the photo, but I think she was still feeling nervous, and the robes crackled with starch. She looks quite different with no clothes on.

Afterwards we went to an O'Neills pub near Cannon Street station. It was all quite festive, large-sized bunting with pictures of Irish menu dishes strung across the bar and young men in suits who'd removed their ties. I told R that as his ancestors were Welsh he could hardly claim St Pauls had been built on their bones. He said he meant his ancestors on the other side. As to that provenance I think I'll draw a veil.

Here’s a website with a commentary about St Paul’s :

Thursday, November 06, 2008

My Luck is in.

One of my favourite views is the approach to the coffee shop in Waterstones in Greenwich. It always feels like a reward at the end of a walk across Blackheath and down through the park. It was a cold day when I took the photos, making me think Winter is really on the way. The trees still make a colourful show.
R was ahead and later refused to led me money when I decided to buy ‘Wannabe a Writer?’ by Jane Wenham Jones. I was tired of my Chinese homework, especially as I’d forgotten to bring my magnifying glass and the characters are small in my so-called ‘pocket’ dictionary that weighs at least 2lbs. Another reason I was glad to sit down. Jane’s book made me laugh – well, the section on ‘Writer’s Bottom’ that I read. She writes for the Writers' Magazine I subscribe to.
Trouble is, the book cost £9.99 and I only had £6.50 on me. R took out his wallet to show he didn’t have any cash on him and no, I wasn’t supposed to use the card because we’d agreed we’d only get money once a week and it wasn’t his fault I’d left my spending money at home. He’d come back later in the day, if it was so important.
But there was only one copy! What if it was sold? As R was still in the coffee shop I went over to the desk and hung about for a while. Should I ask them to reserve it? I could pay a deposit. Then I heard the assistant ask a customer if he wanted his loyalty card points taken off the price of a book purchase. Hmm. With the Society of Authors 10% discount and the loyalty points on my own card the price of the book came down to £6.05. Happy Ending - I bought it.