Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Meeting the Author

I've enjoyed going to book launches, signings and talks for a while now. Whether it’s Waterstones or the Southbank, an excuse for a country weekend, or my local library, I’m there flipping my note pad and swigging any wine that’s going.

The LRB Bookshop has the perfect format. It’s partly the type of book they publish that attracts me: political/travel/ historical fact, and 'serious' fiction. The organisation of events, too, is spot on. The small shop filled with rows of seats from counter to doorway has the intimate ambience of a fringe theatre. Even the technical side is expertly managed: no strained ears or whistling mics. It’s a formula that works: an introduction by an expert, usually some professor, who’ll give an overview of the genre and the writer’s career so far; an extract reading; presenter’s questions ; questions from the floor. Finally, there's the signing, which I must confess I usually skip.

Authors sometimes complain of the ‘media circus’ associated with publishing, the obligation to participate written into publishers’ contracts these days. You can’t blame them for diffidence; not every writer who routinely spends hours in a room with only a computer for company will suddenly adapt to conviviality and chat. It must seem daunting at first. When they've done a few, though, it's obvious they enjoy it. Why not, since the audience generally come to admire, as well as buy.

When two authors are combined it’s double the value. Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant, for instance, illustrated the difference between writing fictionalised biography and creating a ‘composite’ historical character, in Wolf Hall and Sacred Heart respectively. Joanna Burke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, spoke about historical fiction, its practitioners, fans and detractors. Most interesting for me were the writers' comments about their very different research methods. Sarah Dunant only gives up when she's compiled several notebooks and can't stand any more, putting them aside and trusting to memory with occasional checks. Hilary Mantel says she researches and writes concurrently. The discussion touched on other authors in the field, from Walter Scott to C J Sansom, and even TV representation of the Tudors.

What a contrast with Chinese dissident author Ma Jian on a previous occasion: ten minutes late, unsmiling and relying on wife/translator Flora Drew to communicate with the audience. For a student of the language like myself it was a treat to hear the spoken Mandarin and the translation but it made for a tedious session, I suspect, for most members of the audience.

He was there to promote his latest book Beijing Coma a fictionalised account of the 1989 Tianamen Square event, when Chinese students and other protestors were killed by the PLA, ordered to clear the area. The presenter, another professor, described it as 'a landmark novel'.

The author left the room immediately after the session, and I didn’t get a copy of the book. I re-read his earlier Red Dust, an account of fleeing Beijing to escape imminent arrest, and his journey to Tibet, fascinating as a portrait of China and encounters with isolated peoples, as well as for the author’s comments. Strangely enough, the experience of reading was enhanced by being able to visualise a younger version of the author on his travels.

So maybe it’s just the familiarising process that works and the publishers are right to insist on the author agreeing to appear in person.

LRB Bookshop: http://www.lrbshop.co.uk/

'Ware Whitstable

You couldn't make it up. Forty years I've been gadding about London, ( my Regular Reader knows to what extent) without getting mugged, accosted or insulted. Well, that's not quite true. A few weeks ago a doglover called me an Old Bag on Lewisham Station , when I took precedence over her mutt getting on a train. She'd spread her arms to protect its progress, but I had the cheek to dodge past.

As I was saying, in forty years inside the M25 (although I'm not sure it was built when I arrived in 1969) nothing like that happened. Admittedly, I once fell asleep at a brass band concert in St James Park and when I awoke my bag had gone from beside the deckchair. Another time in the NFT cafe I sat down, then got up for a knife and fork. Less than a minute, and my bag was gone. That exemplary institution's dedicated room with a free phone and list of number helped ease the pain. Even so, the thief had time to get cashback on a purchase at the nearest M&S. It was pre-chip and pin days. Arguably, I was careless. and on neither occasion was the purse on my person.

Whitstable was my nemesis. After an relaxed Sunday afternoon of strolling by the shingle, sampling seafood and trawling the charity shops it was time to go home. As R approached the counter of the very last shop with a pile of £1 paperbacks ( the nearly-new one on how to use Windows XP will be particularly useful) my rucksack seemed unnaturally light. A quick glance at the outside pocket showed the zip was open and my heavy wallet-purse was gone. 'Are you sure you had it?' says R. It's true I had checked before I set out, found no money in it, so maybe I'd just left it on the table

It wasn’t at home, though. The absence of money was a good thing, but what the wallet did contain was all my cards - bank, building society, all my library and gallery cards, Cineworld and BFI membership tickets -plus my Freedom Pass!. A lot of palaver ahead. Then I remembered two door keys. 'That's OK, it didn't have your address?' Well, yes, it would be on the business cards those nice people at prontoprint provide free (except for postage)

So apart from all the phoning round we had to call out a locksmith. £155 for two locks! Yes, I know it was Sunday and the guy drove from Haywards Heath.

So I'd say don't put your wallet in your rucksack pocket if you go to Whitstable. Or anywhere else outside London, for that matter. As for my Freedom Pass, after the locks it was the first thing to be replaced, of course.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Prime Time Greenwich

'Say, can you direct us to the Prime Meridian?' said one half of an American couple. The light was fading as I pointed to the path winding up towards the observatory. They'd left it late to photograph themselves astride the line but maybe like me they'd latched on to the idea that evening is best time to visit Greenwich Park in Summer.

On hot days it's crowded, mainly by tourists, and it's good to see at least one sector of the economy is flourishing. The DLR brings a lot of Londoners as well . So it's the last place I'd spend the day in Summer, except when the grandchildren visit and occasionally for the brass band concerts on Sunday afternoons. I walk through it a lot, though, crossing the heath and entering by a side gate near the Ranger's House.

It was different when I arrived at 7pm last Thursday, seeking respite after a day of hot classrooms. The top of the park is some 100 feet above the river and well supplied with ancient trees, so much cooler than the slopes, where couples were still lying on the grass. The Pavilion Cafe was closed, of course - Heaven forfend English people should drink tea beyond the prescribed hours, and closing time is around 5pm.

R and I had a a difficult time finding a tea-shop open in Greenwich town at 5.30pm last Saturday, except for a place called Biscuit, where youthful assistants were enjoying a Heavy Metal concert from the speakers and didn't seem to care it was completely at odds with peaceful recuperation. We carried tea in cardboard cups across to the Maritime Museum gardens, until we were turned out of there, too.

Fortunately, the park itself is open until dusk. The outdoor seating area behind the pavilion was deserted so I read a book, listened to birdsong and watched squirrels having an evening frolic. A pair of Magpies stalked around the bushes.

The light was beginning to fade as I passed General Woolf's statue overlooking the grassy slopes, down to the white square of the Queen's House flanked by colonnades. The domes of the Naval Hospital beyond were barely visible but the Thames was a silver ribbon meandering left towards the city.

It was good to rediscover the park as a quiet green retreat. I expect the Americans thought flash-lit photos were a small price to pay for the tranquil atmosphere.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dangerous Corner

A gunshot sounds offstage; a female voice shouts from the same direction: ‘It can’t happen! It shan’t happen!’

A man’s voice from voice calls from the audience: ‘Well, it already has happened!’

The moment reminded me of Dickens writing about a staging of ‘Hamlet’, when someone from the stalls shouted at the Prince, ‘Oh, for goodness sake, make your mind up!

As an ex-amateur trouper myself I’m biased, but there’s a lot of charm about amateur productions, apart from impromptu audience participation: they usually put on out-of-copyright plays which have proved their success over the years, you don’t have to travel far and the price of tickets, refreshments and programmes are a fraction of what you pay in the West End.
I hadn’t seen JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner before, so I gasped with the rest at the plot twists in this otherwise rather static thriller. Three company directors and wives in the 1930s are gathered for dinner, a year after the brother of one of them has committed suicide. As the evening progresses dark secrets emerge - a bit like one of those ocasional episodes of Eastenders where the protagonists go in for a bout of clearing the air. In this case we, the audience, are just as surprised as the characters.
If it sounds familiar it’s because it has a lot in common with An Inspector Calls, although revelations in the better-known play are provoked by an outside agent – the eponymous Inspector. He questions a factory owner and family members about the grisly suicide of a former employee. In a series of startling twists every member of the ‘respectable’ family assembled for a family celebration is implicated in the death.

Bradford-born Priestley took on a kind of Daily Telegraph role in 1930s, although his characters were fictional. He thought society’s values were being destroyed by the greed of small-scale capitalists. The rest of the audience was as enthralled as I was at an amateur production by The Alaxander Players at Charlton, SE17.

They say in London you’re never more than twenty feet from a rat. It seems you’re never very far from a local dramatic society either, although I wasn’t aware of the Charlton company until I saw a leaflet at the local library.

I think the Alexandra Players are one of the best amateur companies I’ve seen. Set, costumes, directing and acting were of a uniformly high standard, and I’m looking forward to their next play. This may well be a pantomime, for which, apparently, they are celebrated locally. They more than deserve their supportive audience, even if some members feel relaxed enough to comment on the drama as it happens.

Website about Amateur Theatre in London: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/home.htm

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

That's More Like It.

I've been avoiding Leicester Square. It's an ideal location for me to eat my sandwich, en route between Charing Cross and Frith Street, but the normally peaceful spot has been been spoiled of late by a 'sound installation'.

My regular reader will know I'm no enemy to art, even of the most abstract kind. But this was too much - a disjointed soundtrack of dialogue and snatches of choral singing relayed through speakers, in a one-hour repeat loop. Not that I stayed longer than an hour on the day it was installed. As soon as I learned from a young woman clearing polystyrene cups from a table with a Starbucks logo that it would last ten days, I was off.

In contrast to next-door Trafalgar Square with its national monuments and celebration of Empire, there's something almost cosily parochial about Leicester Square, with its trees and benches, half-price ticket-booth and the statue of the 'bard' lounging on his plinth, surrounded by cinemas and pavement cafes.

Today, peace was restored and I sank gratefully onto a bench in the shade. Then I caught sight of the piano opposite. Oh no! It must be one of those automatic machines with a cylinder inside, an electronic hurdy-gurdy.

But it was silent, and carried a written invitation on a board above the keyboard: Play me, I'm Yours.

I think it's a publicity gimmick for West End musicals, because there was a book propped on it, the pages filled with the titles of show tunes.

As I read a novel and bit into my sandwich a young woman approached the instrument, sat down and gave an impromtu rendering of Für Elise. It was pleasant, and a whole lot better than the cacophonous din emitted by the loudspeakers for the past week or so.

With recitals of this quality, I hope the piano will remain. It'll be worth a detour on days when I don't even go to class.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Axe falls on Frith Street

'Ooh, what shall we do if we have no teacher!' wailed the French member of the class. Like the rest of the Chinese class she'd taken the low-priced daytime instruction for granted. We're an assorted crew of elderly Europeans and Chinese dialect speakers who've been studying together for years. Come September we'll be scattered.

My regular reader knows I've been involved with Chinese since 1994, when I returned from Singapore amazed by the respect for education embedded in Chinese culture. I had to find out more. Fortunately there was a Mandarin evening class at nearby Goldsmiths college. I studied for three happy years with an infinitely patient Taiwanese teacher.

I had reason to be thankful I live in London when I needed to move on to a higher level: to classes at Morley College, then Westminster University and even, SOAS, infamous for its exorbitant fees. You get to a certain level and I suppose they assume you're doing it for career reasons. I was still employed, so it was affordable

Progress is almost imperceptible with such a fiendish language. Even a year working in China didn't make much difference - there everybody wants to speak English to foreigners. I got more practice in Spain, really, where Chinese mainlanders have cornered the market in cheap souvenirs and household implement shops - a godsend for self-caterers renting flats with cups like thimbles and no corkscrews.

Anyway, for the last two or three years I've been commuting twice a week to Soho, climbing stairs to the top floor of a ramshackle stack of classrooms opposite Ronnie Scott's, between a stagedoor and a tattoo parlour.

We knew the premises were under threat, but it came as a blow when we heard our class was to be axed. It's the same all over, with adult education colleges facing funding cuts. There'll be handwringing and sad faces at the end-of-term lunch in Chinatown.

WAES: http://www.waes.ac.uk/

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Mysterious Case of the Jinxed Library Ticket

Whoever has cast a spell on my library ticket, please could they get in touch and let me know what I have to do to lift the curse.

It's a few since the Charing Cross Library upgraded their loans and returns system. I must say it was sometimes touch and go whether I made it on time to my Frith Street Chinese class in the past if I forgot to allow for queueing time at the the check-out. Then, after a very short period of closure the branch re-opened complete with three excellent self-service machines.

They're a lot more efficient than the supermarket ones, where you have to call an assistant every time you scan a bottle of alcohol or try to remove a full plastic bag from the dispenser or do any one of a dozen actions they don't like. At the library you simply place your pile of books inside a box-shaped space, push a button, put your library card into a slot and get a receipt for whatever you've returned or borrowed. Magic!

At least, I now suspect a supernatural agency is involved.

My regular reader will know that I have a fondness for this library - not just because I pass it four times a week en route to and from my class, but because they have an unusually good selection of crime fiction and foreign DVDs, as well as Chinese books. You can find out what's going on locally, too. The assistants are helpful and they're very efficient at reserving books.

But now there's one big drawback - my ticket is jinxed. It's not just my imagination working overtime after too many Harry Potters. I haven't even seen the latest Dan Brown film.

I introduced my ticket a few weeks back and not only was the number not recognised , but after telling me to report to the desk the machine itself expired! I don't mean it exploded or anything, but the screen turned pink and a red diamond began to spin in the middle. A message said the terminal was out of action. I tried another, and the same thing happened. Similarly with the third one - now my ticket had dissed every one of the scanning devices.

Fortunately, the people giving hard looks to the first two machines didn't realise it was me. I sneaked up to the desk and explained what had happened. Fortunately, too, it wasn't too difficult for the librarian to get them started again with a couple of flicks of switches on the wall behind. There remained the mystery of why my ticket rendered them defunct when I tried again. Even a new issue of ticket didn't solve the problem.

After some weeks even the library's Top Brains have failed to solve the problem. I can't use the remote terminals and I have to check in at the desk.

Of course, I can do this, and there's less of a queue these days. Even so, you get used to self- service privileges. Trusties in prisons must feel the same when they get their arm-bands :it's a step towards liberation. Also, I have to explain to tyro librarians why I'm taking up their time instead of using the self-help system. I'm beginning to feel persecuted .

So, seriously, I'd like to know to know how I can expiate whatever crime I've committed. I know I can be a bit outspoken, and a bit of a pest in that regard, but I want to use my library card unhindered. So I'm willing to recite whatever incantation it takes.

(Oh, and in case you think the problem is caused because I live in Lewisham but use the Westminster Library Service, that's not the case. You can use the libraries no matter where you live in London. )

Monday, June 15, 2009

Not for These Two Pilgrims

'No, of course there's no satellite dish. It's a Grade II Listed Building!'

I should have known R would never fall for what looked like a small-scale castle, in the middle of a housing estate. It was a typical London surprise that reminded me of the pagoda at the top of our road, built for Caroline, the wife of George IV and also now part of a housing estate, called Pagoda Gardens.

I'd gone alone to view the property after a contretemps in Sainsbury's Homebase - alone, that is, except for Becky, the estate agent's assistant, who lived in New Cross. She seemed to be very good at her job.

The flat I'd gone to see was small, but exuded a mellow charm, from the stone-arched entries to the curious indoor window-shutters. A system of pulley chains opened sky-lights at the top of funnelled ceilings in kitchen and bathroom. It had no separate bedroom, and 'studio' seemed rather fancy when applied to the small living area. Some flats had drop-down beds fitted to the walls, said Becky. I thought that was a good idea, and easier than opening up a sofa every night.

They'd have probably been considered spacious by the '42 aged pilrims' for whom they'd been build in 1831, under the auspices of one William Peacock, partly paid for by 'public subscription'.

They weren't literally pilgrims, despite the Southwark location, but pilgrims in the John Bunyan Pilgrims Progress sense of pilgrims treading their earthly road to heaven. In effect, the 30 or so flats in the two storey dwellings built around a central courtyard were almshouses for the elderly.

And what a courtyard - enclosed on all sides by yellow brick and stone, the plants were of a tropical nature - huge fig trees and a variety I'd last seen in Singapore, called a Fan Palm.

A young man was sitting on the grass, singing and playing a guitar. It almost seemed staged.

It didn't occur to me that R would object to the local ambience: Lewisham's hardly salubrious. Following an email from Becky about a TV aerial in the loft I was sure he'd be won over by the charm of the interior. But two people who'd argue about a replacement loo seat would hardly be in accord about a flat.

I was taken aback when R told Becky he thought the walk from the bus stop, between tower blocks positively sprouting dishes, would lower the spirits. After all, he was brought up not very far away, in one of the barrack-like blocks opposite Camberwell bus station. Although not intended as almshouses they'd also had been endowed by a nineteenth century philanthropist, Samuel Lewis, with his own ideas about how the poor should live. They lack charm entirely, having more than a hint of the gulag about them.

William Peacock, by contrast, was a romantic. Not only did he he think the pilgrims should have bathrooms, and a garden, he stipulated that the ground rent for the properties should be ' a single red rose', to be paid annually. He also requested that he and his wife should be buried in the courtyard.

I can see R's point about the flat being too small, so I'm secretly relieved, although it was a pleasant weekend fantasy.

'Mmm. Not a bad loo seat, this. I think we should take it with us when we move.' I'm glad we finally agreed on the replacement. I hope he's joking about taking it, though.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bring me Sunshine

Another success at bidding for a free preview. This one was on Sunday morning, but on locally, at the Greenwich Odeon. No surprises that only half the seats were taken

'I'm good at getting a guy to want me - not to date me, or to marry me, but to want me', says twenty-something single mom Rose.

'You were the best cheerleader in High School', says her old school chum

'Cheerleading isn't a very marketable skill', responds Rose.

So maybe that's what this rather rambling film is trying to tell us: get some qualifications if you don't want to end up as a single mum having to clean people's houses to support yourself and child.

As an ex-teacher I had to approve. The media are forever assuring young people success has nothing to do with exams, so at least it was refreshing.

It's a shame the rest of this upbeat tale contradicts itself. Nothing ever seems to get these people down . Heroine Rose is played by 'perky' Amy Adams, her sister by 'quirky' Emily Blunt and their grandfather by 'irascible' Alan Arkin. It's all slightly amusing, and what would be disasters if they happened to normal people just don't have any impact.

So the actual message is ' Carry on mopping '

Sunshine Cleaning:http://uk.rottentomatoes.com/m/sunshine_cleaning/

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Last Chance Emma

Emma Thompson hasn't had much luck with her on-screen lovers. Maybe it's something about that slightly nasal voice that makes directors cast her as forever settling for second best or overlooking obvious drawbacks.

She hit an all-time low as as Carrington, in love with gay Bloomsbury-ite Lytton Strachey.

When asked 'How can you live with such a revolting pervert?' she simply rolled her eyes, and said, 'Well, there's always something to put up with in a man'

In Last Chance Harvey it's the (at least) 20-year age gap between her and Dustin Hoffman that's the drawback. He's 71, which I know from watching him on the Jonathan Ross show. The film publicity, however, says musician Harvey and airport employee Kate are 'two middle-aged losers who find romance by the Thames'

They seem to walk for hours along the South Bank without actually getting anywhere.

Well, to be fair she does spend some of the time in her 'writing class' which meets on successive days in The National Theatre. ( I'll ring them up later, and ask how much the sessions cost.)

It redeemed a film whose only asset apart from Eileen Atkins playing Kate's comic mother, was the scenery, with side visits to Trafalgar Square and Somerset House.

'How was your class?' says Hoffman.

'Oh, the usual - Mike read out an extract from his psycho-sexual saga.' Pause whilst she does her signature wry grin and eye-rolling, then adds 'He's 86!'

I'll overlook the agism because later we do actually get to see and hear said Mike reading his extract. That, for me, is much better than the one where Emma tries on a succession of dresses to kit her out for Hoffman's daughter's the wedding reception.

The try-on scene is surely completely played out now - the fact that it's speeded up here seems to hint at that. What we could do with is more writing class scenes. Besides, it would make much more sense, as she doesn't mind the age gap, for aspiring writer Kate to settle for octogenarian Mike. At least they'd have something in common.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Chilling Tale

Decorated hero Leo Demidov goes about his normal routine as a KGB officer in Stalinist Russia - arresting suspects and terrorising the populace in the snowy wastes north of Moscow. At the same time he watches his back because his deputy hates him and will stop at nothing to discredit him.

Asked to investigate his schoolteacher wife, who is suspected of spying for the West, Leo begins to have doubts about the regime. When he stumbles upon evidence that points to a serial killer of children on the loose, he decides to investigate. The only drawback is such crimes aren't recognised by the state; to believe otherwise is a crime against the state itself, punishable by death.

Child 44 is a remarkable debut thriller by Tom Rob Smith, based on the real-life case of a man who committed 50 murders before he was caught but re-crafted into a story that investigates the mind-set of the main protagonist as his search reveals as much about his own past as it does the motivation for the killings.

The story grips from the first page, when a woman dying of hunger releases a cat into the snowy forest, hoping it will survive when all other animals have long disappeared. The cat is stalked by a child, in turn stalked by a man carrying a sack and a cudgel...

'You should wear gloves when you hold that', advised R, after I read out a couple of chilly extracts.

Surviving in extreme situations, the nature of marriage, cold-war politics and the psychology of serial killers are just a few of the issues that make this a good reading group choice. It's the quality and intensity of the writing, though, that keeps you reading.

Child 44 taster: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000160973

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Summer Bling at the Royal Academy

The buzz at the RA Summer Exhibition was more than usually raucous, especially in the crush of the smaller galleries where hundreds of paintings crowd the walls in haphazard layers. In part it's the reaction to a surprisingly upbeat collection.

The catalogue (£3.50) is entertaining, for perusing the evocative titles afterwards and gasping at prices, as well as adding to the meaning of obscure abstract works. Although notices outline themes and highlights for each room, the works themselves are just numbered. It's best to go with someone so you can join in the calling out 'Ooh, that would just go nicely with my curtains', or 'What? £3,600 for folded newspapers?.'

It's too big for one visit. The penultimate gallery had lots of small items on shelves, which I didn't see, and I'm looking forward, next time, to the film room.

The sculptures are excellent. Damien Hurst's magnificent St Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain is easily the best thing in the show - a larger-than-life silver nude. He poses with all his muscles exposed and his skin folded over an outstretched arm like a crumpled raincoat, except that it dangles empty feet and toes. He holds a pair of shears in his other hand, and smaller surgical instruments are scattered round his feet.

I liked an intriguing hollow cube of soldered numbers and letters - called Wittgenstein's Dilemma. The gilded Moon Gold Hare 2008 by Barry Flanagan, an exhilarating piece of bling, drew admiring comments.

There were few overtly political comment pieces. Marcus Harvey's diptych Male and Female wearing Masks (Tony and Maggie) had a pair of figures painted to appear as if behind frosted glass, the iconic cheesey grin and yellow hair making them instantly recognisable.

Of the paintings I liked the abstracts best, my favourite being Flux - hundreds of small pieces of paper in different blues arranged in swirls. It was big, which made the £10,000 price- tage seem a bit more reasonable. Tracey Emin's jokey monkey in a space suit looks like an illustration for a children's book, very reasonably priced in a limited edition of 300 but you'll have to be quick because there were plenty of orange stickers on the glass. There's another of hers at £90,000 but I missed it.

The northern grittiness of a rent-collector against a backdrop of yards and four grim housewives, called Shadows Thick as Felt hinted at a return to harsher times, as did the sculpted black bear about to pounce, but the tone was generally cheerful.

Ken Howard's picture of the inside of his studio with a model foregrounded a gleaming silver coffee set. £35,000 you'd have to pay for that - Self-portrait with Fantin Latour.

Among the superbly atmospheric paintings the impressionistic Dora,Snow in Kensington Gardens by KenHoward was untypically serious. Explicitly sexual or gloomy subjects were hard to spot in a celebratory collection full of 'witty' pictures. The giant stainless steel spoons in the courtyard add to the overall razzle-dazzle. It couldn't have been the Pimm's effect, because I didn't have any, (what, at those prices?) although its festive chunks of oranges and limes suited the mood of the show.

Friday, June 05, 2009

French Thriller

I'm glad I didn't read anything Anything for Her before I saw it, because even the one-sentence summary in Time Out gives part of the plot away. The film wrong-foots you from a cracking start - and then draws you into into empathising with French teacher Julien, his wife Lisa and son Oscar separated when one of the parents is sentenced to 20 years in prison. Oscar is traumatised by the brutal arrest and alienated by grim prison visits. After three years and a suicde attempt , a prison break looks like the only option for the family to survice.

This the kind of intelligent thriller the the French do best : ordinary people in desperate situations. The first part is harrowing, heaping on the despair, and the rest keeps you on the edge of your seat as you follow complex events which contrast the protagonists desperation, grandparents' anguish, ruthless underworld thugs and cool police evidence-gathering.

The acting can't be faulted - the kid never plays 'cute', although one of his scenes really ratchets up the tension. Diane Kruger as Lisa resembles a young, low-key Catherine Deneuve , and Vincent Lindon has the kind of baggy-eyed, lived-in look that Frenchmen have perfected. There's strong support, too, from the minor actors, Lucien's father in particular bringing great emotional depth to a role requiring him to pretend he doesn't know what's going on. The prison rescue and subsequent police chase leads up to a nail-biting finish.

I wouldn't read any reviews before seeing it, though.

Anything for Her: http://www.anythingforher-movie.com/

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Out of Vegas

When three 'bachelor party' friends wake up in a trashed suite in Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, with a chicken on the sofa , a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the closet they can't remember a thing about the night before. Somehow, they've swapped the father-in-law's convertible for a police car but, more disastrously, the groom has disappeared So the rest of the film is about attempts locate him, and in the process, about uncovering what really happened the night before.

I was at the preview because I responded to a 'free films' ad in Time Out a few years back. I get these email ticket offers for new releases, click on a choice of cinema and the reply is nearly always 'sold out'. I struck lucky with The Wind that Blows the Barley, but then Ken Loach is a minority taste. Monday's film seemed awful, but I was so surprised to get a 'yes' that I went.

' West-end Vue's the most expensive cinema in London', said R enviously, as he left for his bridge game. I had a quick look at an Internet trailer and hoped stag-night capers in Vegas would be a mix of Sideways and Ocean's Eleven. The director's already made a film called Old School, but I hadn't seen it.

Screen 8, right at the top of the Leicester Square cinema, was full and the mainly mid-twenties-couples audience laughed a lot. 'It's the best free film I've seen', I heard a woman say as we left.

I couldn't fault the production values. The film had some very funny parts and the cinematography, contrasting wild Nevada desert and dazzling sin-city hotels, was as exhilarating as the soundtrack. The plot was unlikely, but the acting wasn't bad, as the roles didn't demand anything subtle - one handsome married guy eager to stray, one hairy oaf, one nerdy dentist and the innocent-abroad groom. The silly jokes, unlikeable characters and glaring product placement were just about made up for by the genuinely comic twists.

Unfortunately, rampant racism and sexism spoilt the film. There's a pair of menacing black thugs (cue cameo from facially tattoed Mike Tyson petting a tiny pooch, like Lenny in Of Mice and Men) and Asian gangsters who present an odd mix of violence and effeminacy.

The men are pathetic but the women are worse, although mainly off-screen. It's more of a buddy-bonding film. 'Positive' females are compliant no-strings hookers in Las Vegas, while the 'negative' ones are back home, waiting with balls and chains, or constantly in touch by cell phone, demanding reports like long-distance probation officers .

'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas' advises the father-in-law at the start. I wish it were true. The whole thing reminds me of one of my Auntie's expressions when pestered about what was for dinner. She'd laugh and say 'S**t with sugar on it!'

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Ways to Go

Sunday's 'Taste of Spain' Festival, seems to me an argument against leaving London at all - an early example of the city's Summer treats. Still, a touch of Lanzarote can liven up those Winter months and it's wise to think ahead

Siting the event in London's classiest shopping street targets Britain's monied classes to come to lesser-known regions of Spain; shops like Aquascutum and Jaeger were in cahoots, offering 20% discounts. In my experience posh Brits favour France and Italy, and there was no sign that the audience was the one intended, being mainly bemused foreign tourists or down-at-heel free-loaders like myself. There's something too robust and earthy about Spanish culture to appeal to a snobbish elite - it's probably why so many working class Brits made their homes there.

Why anybody would want to go to Spain when they can go to Regent Street beats me. Well, that's not quite true, but Spain's major attraction was overshadowed, so to speak, on Sunday. How pleasant to be in a Regent Street rendered not only traffic-free for the event, but basking in sunlight.

It strikes me as odd, too, after what British tourism has done to the Costas, that they'd want to invite English people to the other parts being promoted - Valencia, Calabria, the Basque country and Asturias,which all had their separate tents with produce stalls and information leaflets. True, the Canary Island were in evidence.
Still, who am I to wonder? I was there with R to nip into Grant & Culters, the language shop in Great Marlborough Street, to buy him an Italian Beginners course. Far too late to join the queues for free paella in any case. All the sombreros had been given out.

Various factors, mainly the combining of different-level classes at the Mary Ward Centre have sent me back to Italian studies for a while. The recently release of the film 'Genova' prompted me to book a flight there for September.

I like Spain, but there are better ways to visit than package holidays. A good way to get to know how 'ordinary' Spaniards live- as distinct from waiters and tour-guides - is the home-swap route, through one of the companies that promote them. London's popularity and the high price of hotels means you don't have to make the first approach to potential exchangers. Other exchangers want to experience the countryside and lesser-known towns. Offers come from places you might not have thought of visiting. In Spain, R's favourite was Poble Nou, a district in Barcelona full of disused car factories and colourful graffitti - mine was Salamanca, a city that seemed to be built entirely of convents.
For home-swaps you need to speak the language, to some extent, so you can locate the concierge on arrival and the video rental shop for those evenings when the tapas crawls start to pall. However, as with all European countries, English is widely spoken.
One of the best times I had in Spain, though, was undoubtedly with the VaughanTown scheme, where you don't have to speak Spanish at all. You just go to some relatively unknown area, stay in a four star hotel, and spend a week speaking one-to-one with Spanish business people.

I might stand a better chance of tasting the wares, though, at the Borough Market events planned for today and tomorrow.

Exchange Holidays by Intervac: http://www.intervac.com/