Sutton Who?

I wasn’t sure; Mary Beard was reluctant; OH didn’t know anything about it. What was it? The Dig; a modern retelling of the Sutton Hoo excavation. It’s important to remember that The Dig is fiction, based on a novel which the author openly admits took some liberties with the facts, as did the film; nevertheless the essential truths are uncovered and laid bare for all to see. For me it was especially interesting because way back in the ’80s I took a job for a couple of months working on an Iron Age barrow; I thought I’d be spending my time scraping away at little bits of flint or bone but no such luck: the job was to uncover the original burial mound which was surrounded by no fewer than three circular trenches, each of which had to be excavated and then planks put across to reach the central mound. All day long we were mattocking and shovelling and wheeling barrows across these ditches (important to use three planks, not two as I discovered one day and nearly dumped myself in a ditch under a wheelbarrow of earth; when wet, the soil could be extraordinarily heavy.) We started work at 8 and finished at 4 (though we did have tea- and lunch-breaks) but it was exhausting, break-backing, mountainous work. Then at night I’d retire to a mosquito-ridden tent and set my alarm for 7 so I could shower and breakfast before starting the day. In the time I was there we didn’t find much but it was an interesting experience and the others were friendly and egalitarian, the qualified archaeologists more than happy to explain their work to the uninitiated.

Back to the film. Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist who has been working with Ipswich Museum and is head-hunted by Mrs Pretty (Carey Mulligan) the owner of Sutton Hoo, to excavate some mounds on her land. Though treated as no more than a hired hand by the upper-class Museum staff, Mrs Pretty shows him more respect and it’s clear that Brown knows his work. He cycles the 35 miles from his home in Diss carrying all his equipment and once there, knows exactly where to dig. He shifts tons of earth manually and in the night gets up to heave tarpaulins over the site to protect it from a thunderstorm. His dedication is second to none and his instincts are sound; in fact he represents the triumph of instinct and experience over dogma and ‘knowledge’. Ken Stott plays Charles Phillips, the Man from the British Museum who swans in to take over once the ship has been uncovered and tries to oust Brown from the site, but Mrs Pretty steps in and insists on Brown staying, and together with other hired staff including a married couple and a photographer they complete the excavation.

I dread to think what Hollywood would have done to this story, but here it is pitched perfectly. The period is conveyed completely unselfconsciously without cliche or obviousness; the planes that keep passing overhead remind us that the Second World War is just about to begin, and Mrs Pretty is dying of heart disease which would nowadays be treatable. There is an understated naturalism in the way that characters interact and an understanding without intimacy between Mrs Pretty and Mr Brown: the closest they get is when she invites him to dinner but then his wife arrives and he has to cancel. Other stories are dealt with deftly; there’s a married man who clearly doesn’t want to sleep with his wife but his closet homosexuality is only hinted at and the difficulties resolved without fireworks (he goes off with the other guys; she forms a liaison with the photographer.) She is the first person to find gold in the burial and one of the final scenes shows her throwing her wedding ring into the mound before it is back-filled. The scenery is also very much present, though not obviously so; we see the marshland between the site and the coast and the river that runs at the bottom of Mrs Pretty’s land but like the house and grounds, they are just there. There’s an interesting use of camera angles too, and altogether it’s an unusual film; one which would have been disastrous in the hands of any Hollywood director.

Sutton Hoo was a find of incalculable importance which changed the view of early Anglo Saxons completely. Far from being the Dark Ages when people reverted to a primitive way of life, these were cultured and sophisticated people; artisans who knew how to work gold silver and iron, how to build ships and – no small feat – how to roll a ship several miles inland over logs and bury it deep in the ground. The Sutton Hoo hoard is on show at the British Museum and there are of course virtual tours available.

It makes you wonder what’s under your feet. In the case of Loughborough, probably not much; our house was almost certainly built on farmland which might previously have been forest. But who knows? Maybe an undocumented Roman villa or a Saxon homestead lies under us? Archaeology is a fascinating subject; it’s also a fragile science where the slightest mistake can result in valuable data being irretrievably lost; all the better that in Sutton Hoo someone was there who knew what he was doing. And I’d say exactly the same thing about The Dig. It’s on Netflix right now so go watch.

Additional: I’ve also discovered a link with Detectorists. I was already thinking they were similar but there is an actual link: Johnny Flynn, who plays one of the archaeologists, performed the theme tune of Detectorists. I’ll leave you with that:

Kirk out

The Song and Dance of the Spheres

As I lay awake in the early hours abandoning all hope of sleep (abandon sleep all ye who enter here) I was thinking about the music of the spheres. In ancient times they had an idea that the spheres – ie the planets and the sun – made a kind of music inaudible to our ears, but real to those tuned in to it. It was not literal music but an idea of harmony and it was also linked with dance. Just as you cannot have dance without music, so to the ancient mind the planets could not move without their own kind of music. Everything was in harmony and everything knew its place.

Nowadays we’ve thrown out all such ideas. Any harmony is in the human mind, not ‘out there’; the universe is random and movements are governed by forces we partly know and partly have yet to discover. Yet if we set aside the notion of hierarchy there is something very appealing in the notion that everything in the universe works in harmony in a fusion of music and dance. C S Lewis picks up this idea in the Narnia books: in Prince Caspian the young prince is taken to see the conjunction of two stars, Tarva and Alambil: they are so close together that he asks whether the stars will collide. ‘Nay,’ says his tutor, ‘they know their dance too well for that.’ And in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Caspian actually meets a retired star living on a remote island. Every day he is brought a live coal from the mountains of the sun and every day he grows a little younger: soon he will take his place once more at the Eastern rim of the world and begin the dance.

There’s something hypnotic and deeply spiritual about dance; and perhaps this accounts for why I dislike Strictly so much. I know it’s tantamount to heresy to say this, particularly since Bill Bailey won it, but I just can’t stand it. I can’t quite put my finger on why but I think it may be this; that in all the competition, the spangly-twirliness, the light-flashin’, lip-smackin’, costume-wearin’, the relentless cheering and the acrobatics, something of the soul is missing. Popular it may be; dance of the spheres it ain’t.

I’m going to leave you with a couple of my favourite dances on film. The first is from A Knight’s Tale where a stately dance to medieval music morphs seamlessly, almost imperceptibly into Bowie’s Golden Years:

video removed on request.

And this. Almost any dance scene from La La Land would do, it’s a totally magical film but I’m going to leave you with this. It was filmed almost in one take early in the morning just outside L A and it’s stunning.

video removed on request

Enjoy! Have a little twirl yourself – but do it with soul.

Kirk out

What Enola Crap

It’s been a while but I’m back now and seriously grinding the nose to the stone because Nanowrimo has begun. Yes, it’s that time of year again when people aim to write a novel in a month – or 50,000 words at least, though some go way beyond that and aim for the whole 50K in one day which leaves me asking why, god, why? much as I do when people take on a triathlon. I guess I can understand the urge to push oneself to the limit but there also seems to be a fair amount of end-gaining and competitiveness here as well, the point of which eludes me. But there you are.

So what have I been up to during my absence? I’ve been decorating is what: the pantry has been transformed from a cobwebbed black pit of mould (quite suitable for Hallowe’en really) into a lovely clean white space, and I’ve begun work on transforming the bathroom from a pasty and patchy blue to a beautiful dark aqua. In order to obtain this shade I went to B&Q, as one does, clutching the bag in which our shower curtain came, so that I could match it. Failing to find the exact shade I wanted I headed over to the paint mixing desk (sounds a bit musical, that) hoping for a nice friendly chat and the mixing of the perfect pitch that I was after. There was someone being served and a man waiting so I tried to guess where the queue was and positioned myself, appropriately distanced. The person being served eventually finished and they started on the man in front of me. They mixed him a pot of paint and then another, then the two members of staff began working in tandem to fulfil his order, placing pot after huge pot in the shaking dens (or whatever they call them) having added the appropriate colour to the base paint. It was interesting to see how it’s done but the interest palled after about ten minutes. What the hell is this guy painting? I thought. Presumably he was a tradesman but he was getting enough paint for a whole row of houses. Eventually I’d had enough, decided that he must be painting the Forth Bridge, and left. I plumped for a contrasting shade of ready-made paint and I was glad I did. It looks great.

So much for decorating. I also have to confess I’ve been watching a fair bit of telly as well; there are a lot of great series coming up, such as The Crown series 4 which includes Princess Di, the next instalments of His Dark Materials and other things I can’t remember – but in the meantime I’ve had to make do with repeats of Sherlock and the excellent Michael Palin’s travel series, supplemented by retrospectives of the same.

Like many people I take a stroll through Netflixland now and again to see what’s new. Not much, is the answer, at least not yet. I’d decided that Enola Holmes, the story of Sherlock and Mycroft’s sister, looked really naff but then a couple of people raved about it so I gave it a whirl. If I hadn’t been so exhausted that afternoon I’d never have sat through it – in fact I think I slept through some – but if you haven’t seen this, don’t bother. Seriously. It’s awful. The main character is mawkish and about as believable as an Enid Blyton heroine; Helena Bonham Carter gives a fairly entertaining cameo as her eccentric suffragette mother, but when she leaves the family home unexpectedly and Enola’s brothers Mycroft and Sherlock arrive to take care of her, the fun definitely stops. Considering how many and varied the portrayals of these characters have been in film and TV, they could have done so much with them but here they are never more than cardboard cut-outs; Mycroft is the repressive patriarch and we see none of Sherlock’s brilliance, he’s just a sort of meek backdrop to Enola’s supposed genius (compare and contrast the final episode of the BBC’s Sherlock featuring his sister Euros.) There was never any sense of danger; though Enola is threatened by many and various enemies there’s never any question that she will fight her way out, and when she finally breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience if we have any ideas to help her, I gave up. Or would have, if I’d had the energy to reach for the remote. Enola Holmes is a pile of bats’ droppings and thoroughly illustrates what the vlogger Thoughty-Two has to say about what is wrong with Hollywood these days.

On the other hand, Britbox’s resurrection of Spitting Image is great fun; the puppets as brilliant and inventive as ever with Priti Patel as a vampire, Dominic Cummings as a swivel-eyed alien and Boris’s hair having a life of its own. Trump’s face is melting, his tweets are written by his anus and I cried with laughter at the scene where Boris tries to channel Churchill and ends up with Thatcher who gives him a good slap round the face for supporting Brexit. So go watch – and if you haven’t got Britbox there was an episode broadcast on ITV on Friday.

I’ve also taken up the piano again – or to be more accurate, the keyboard, and tried to do my scales and exercises with a little more dedication.

So that’s us up to date. How have you been?

Kirk out

Joyless Self

I woke up to the horrendous discovery that we were out of soya milk. Woe! Woe! We have cow’s milk but I’ve lost my taste for that, aside from which it gives me a runny nose and sneezes. It’s a funny thing but the effects of a dairy allergy are widely accepted in ‘alternative medicine’ but hardly at all in conventional medicine. But there it is: I have only to daub a pat of butter on my toast to experience a frog in the throat. Cheese gives me sneezes and milk makes my nose run. I know this from long experience but will the doctors believe me? They will not. They look sceptical and mutter hay fever under their breath. I’ve given up mentioning it.

So, since I’m reluctant to put cow’s milk in my tea I must either have peppermint or sally forth and buy some more of the soya variety. It’s an odd thing because in the beginning I didn’t like it at all but now I prefer it.

Not all cheeses are created equal of course. Goat’s cheese is better than cow’s and sheep’s is better than either. Feta is bedda than cheddar, basically. But I can’t stand black tea.

Ah, woe is me!

This is not what I was going to write about today at all but never mind; blogging is what happens to you when you’re busy thinking of other things. What I was going to write about was this: it happened this morning when I was trying to drink my too-strong tea that OH read out something about Will Self. ‘Will Self’s writing is completely joyless,’ it said, and it struck me that that was absolutely right. It is joyless. There’s no pleasure, no fun, no happiness in what he writes, only a dry, ironic sort of wit and a fantastic display of cleverness. He doesn’t seem to like anyone or anything very much and I get the impression that if I were to meet him I’d want to hide in a corner rather than be subjected to such merciless scrutiny.

Here’s a post I wrote about him last year. I used a number of adjectives then, including scornful, scathing and overly-critical. But joyless really seems to sum it up.

It’s here in the middle of this podcast that they slag off Will Self and compare his verbiage to the poetry of Vogons. It’s coincidentally a podcast dedicated to the universe of Douglas Adams, giving some advice to help you live in it.It’s about 20 minutes in.

Last night OH and I, being on a Peter Morgan kick (the guy I told you about yesterday who wrote The Queen et al – are you paying attention?) watched ‘The Deal,’ the story of the early careers and friendship of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and the deal they made that in a leadership race Blair would stand aside and let Brown win; a deal which if it existed (and according to Wikipedia it did), Blair evidently broke. The film is one of a Blair trilogy which culminates in ‘The Queen’ but perhaps should have continued to the Iraq war and his subsequent downfall. Blair has been in the outer darkness now for a long time but doesn’t actually realise it and keeps popping up with Ideas to Save the Party and the Country.

Coincidentally – or not? maybe there are no coincidences – OH this morning directed me to another podcast (OH loves podcasts; I’m a bit meh) about how over the last 40 years things politically have slid to the right like a great uncontrollable mudslide; starting with Thatcher, continuing with Blair and still sailing inexorably on with Johnson into a blood-red, ghostly white and deep blue sunset. It’s called ‘That Option No Longer Exists.

So that’s today. It’s cold and wet here in blogland so stay safe, wrap up and don’t go outside without a mask.But if you’re going to the shop, can you get me some soya milk?

Thanks.

Kirk out

Hamlet is not Quite as Funny…

Image result for withnail and I open source images

I take as my text today the script of Withnail and I: yes, all of it – for as I have so consistently pointed out the entire film is basically a collection of quotes linked by a somewhat haphazard plot.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094336/?ref_=nv_sr_1

But my subject this morning is not the film per se, but the Facebook group.  It is my contention that The Withnail and I Appreciation Society is one of the healthiest groups on social media.  Why?  Because it allows people to hurl the most terrible insults at each other with impunity.  When someone calls me a terrible c**t, I chuckle; when a man declares that he means to have me even if it must be burglary, I laugh uproariously and when people ‘feel unusual’ I’m not a bit spooked.   Because the film licences this rudeness, which is not about the person you’re talking to but about your shared enjoyment of the film.  And this is very healthy I think.

This is what happens: people post pictures, memes and links to news stories on which to hang their references to the film.  And because the film has a thousand and one quotable bits, it just keeps on going.  As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops.  I’ve only just begun to grow last year.  The joint I am about to roll can utilise up to twelve skins.  It is called the Camberwell Carrot.  This will tend to make you very high.  Bollocks, I’ll swallow it and run a mile.  That wouldn’t wash with Geoff.  Imagine getting into a fight with the f***er.

It’s not all insults: you can offer sherry, fulminate about cats or eulogise root vegetables.  You can talk about garlic, rosemary and salt or good quality rubber boots; you can tell Miss Blennerhasset to call the police or demand the finest wines known to humanity.  You can even go on holiday by mistake.

The film ends with a soliloquy from hamlet, another play that’s full of quotable bits.  Though Hamlet isn’t quite as funny…

Marwood out.

What is This Blog About?

I read just this morning some advice which suggested a blogger should always make it clear what their blog is about.  But this presents me with some difficulty because when it comes down to it, what actually is this blog about?

It’s easy to say ‘it’s a blog about writing’ – and in the main it is; but it’s about so much more than that.  The one thing I discovered when I began to blog regularly was that it is impossible to stick to one subject.  The mind lists where it will; there are many things I’m interested in and I want to share those interests with readers.  I want to connect: I want to philosophise and politicise and talk about anything I damn well please, from bricklaying (yes, I did that once) to road materials testing (also done) to knitting and poetry and short stories and poems about knitting and road materials and bricklaying (I haven’t yet written about the last two but knitting has proved a fertile metaphor for many things.)

I also want to blog about culture: I want to organise my responses to films and TV programmes, I want to write book reviews and share the poetry I love.  So in the main, it’s about connection.  Only connect would be a good alternative title for the blog if ‘A Writer’s Life’ weren’t clearer and more likely to – ahem – connect with readers.

One of the writing quotes I read recently was: ‘A writer knows a little about everything and is an expert on nothing.’  Now I think that’s exactly true: I am compelled to find out about all manner of things and would be just as engaged in finding out how fork-lift trucks work (indeed I have had that conversation with a friend who works at JCB) as with hearing about how other writers write.  I’m fascinated by these processes and not with any conscious intent of ‘doing research’ for writing: they just interest me.  As Chaucer said (or at least the Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) ‘all human life lies within the artist’s scope.’  So there it is; all human life lies within this blog’s scope.

What is this blog about?  Everything.

What am I an expert on?  Nothing.

Except perhaps on writing…

And just for fun, here’s today’s writing cartoon:

Kirk out

So Where Are We?

As I mentioned yesterday I watched this video about the current state of Hollywood, and it made me realise that the only good films I’ve seen in the last few years have been, with one exception, British. I’ll tell you what they were in a minute – but first, I think the video raises some important questions about what is actually going on in popular culture. Thoughty-Two (that’s the vlogger’s name – geddit?) suggests that there are two main problems in film right now and they both begin with B: the first is the business model and the second is Bathos. Let’s deal with the second one first.

Bathos is in the best sense comic relief. It’s done very well in, say, the Harry Potter series where the tension is ratcheted up and up until you can’t take any more at which point Ron says something (it’s usually Ron, though it might be Fred or George) which makes us laugh and defuses the tension. This scene in The Chamber of Secrets with the giant spider Aragog is a good example; as the beast advances to feast on them Ron says in strangled tones ‘Can we panic now?’

Unfortunately it has become a mere knee-jerk trope in far too many films, resulting in a total lack of emotional engagement. It’s as if the film-makers are terrified of taking anything too seriously and must constantly remind us that this is all just fun, entertainment, candy floss in celluloid. It’s a cynical reminder of the usual tropes; a nod to the fact that, hey, you’re all highly civilised and experienced people and we’re not going to mess with that. At its best it’s clever and amusing but generally the result is cynical and dulling to the spirit.

Thoughty-Two singles out superhero movies and particularly Marvel films as the worst offenders, which brings us to the second B: business. It’s expensive to make a film, which means that producers tend to go with what works, which means they tend to repeat what worked before, which means very little gets made that’s innovative. Not only that, but in order not to lose the rights to a particular character they have to keep making films that use the character, whether or not those films are any good. Otherwise the rights will ‘revert’ and they’ll lose them.

It’s clear that what loses out in all this are genuine characters, human emotions and good storytelling. Thoughty-Two points out that in this climate much of the talent has fled to places like Netflix and HBO, boosting the current golden age of TV drama in which we are living.

The video gives an excellent rundown of the current situation in Hollywood, and led me to compile this list of all the good films I’ve seen in the last few years. They are, in no particular order, these:

1917 by Sam Mendes

Mr Turner by Mike Leigh

Sorry We Missed You by Ken Loach

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

Mrs Lowry and Son by Adrian Noble

and

Joker by Todd Phillips

With only one exception, Joker, these are all British. Coincidence? I think not.

Kirk out

Em-meh

I went to the cinema by mistake yesterday; out on a blustery and rather chilly afternoon I became diverted on my way to Sainsbury’s and stopped in at the Odeon to see what was playing. At first it appeared to be wall-to-wall Sonic the Hedgehog but eventually the screen changed and lo! they were about to show Emma so I got me a ticket and I went in.

And?

Hm. The settings were great, though I don’t think they made the most of the detail; still the drawing-rooms and frontages, the landscaped gardens with ha-has and classical pediments, gave a good flavour of the period. But the contrast between this and the farm where Harriet Smith is destined to end up, is rather jarringly introduced with loud folk music, and the difference between Emma’s and Jane Fairfax’s piano playing rather too pointed. In fact the production was altogether rather blunt and obvious; the narrative was a little jerky and there was quite a bit of telling-not-showing. But my main beef was with the casting.

Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect as Emma but Mr Knightley was frankly wet and weedy, not at all the blunt, forceful figure of the novel. Gemma Whelan was not bad as Mrs Weston but didn’t get enough screen time and in any case was not up to the standard of Greta Scaachi in the Gwyneth Paltrow version.

I did not like Josh o’Connor as Mr Elton and Callum Turner was not at all my idea of Frank Churchill. I did quite enjoy Bill Nighy as the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse but the subtleties of the relationship between Emma and her sister and brother-in-law were quite lost in general bickering. There were also some completely un-Austinian moments where people shouted and banged things; where Emma drops her clothes on the floor and sits on the windowsill, knees to chest; and where – horrors! grown gentlemen actually weep! Poor Jane – I hear her turning in her grave.

There were some good moments, however; I enjoyed the visual effect of the parlour-boarder girls prancing around in unison and the comedy of Mr Woodhouse being surrounded by fire screens with only the top of his head visible. I also thought Miranda Hart much closer to the original Miss Bates than Sophie Hannah’s breathy hesitancy. But Jane Austen it wasn’t; give me the Gwyneth Paltrow version any day.

To sum up, it was enjoyable but a bit – well, meh.

Kirk out

Cinema Moth: 1917

Last night I went back in time to the First World War, to watch the absolutely stupendous 1917. I’m not a huge fan of war films, though I like stories of ordinary people caught up in war, such as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War which was made into a series starring a very young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Brannagh (before they split up.) But the guns-and-poppies type of film, I’m not so keen on. But this is a whole other kettle of fish.

You probably know this already unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few weeks, but the film is two hours, give or take, and it’s one shot. Just take that in for a moment: one shot. One. Shot.

The effect is stupendous. From the word go we are immersed in the trenches as the camera follows two young soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and the interestingly-visaged George MacKay) as they are sent on a mission into no-man’s-land. If it all sounds a bit Blackadder, it isn’t, neither is it Wilfrid Owen exactly, but an immersive experience as we follow the two through scrolls of barbed wire and dead tanks, round craters and over banks into the ghostly corpse-strewn landscape between the two fronts. They hole up in a barn for a while to escape fighter pilots overhead but when a plane is shot down it nearly ploughs into them. I won’t give the whole plot away except to say that as far as narrative technique goes it’s just about the most immersive film of its type I’ve ever seen; I spent half of it with my hand to my mouth. The action builds slowly, relentlessly to a climax and at the end of it I was as emotionally exhausted as the hero was physically spent. There are brief cameos from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch but this film is all about the ordinary soldiers and their journey. There’s an interesting video here about why it had to be one shot.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch.

Kirk out

A Cinema Moth

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image removed on request

When the kids were little we used to see a lot of these in the garden. They’re beautiful as moths but the caterpillars are not so nice; they live on ragwort and can strip a plant to a ragged stalk in a matter of hours. They’re a daytime insect and so are really butterflies rather than moths, but to me they look like a butterfly in evening dress so I dubbed them cinema moths. It amused us to think of them as figures in red gowns and black evening cloaks clustered around the entrance to the cinema.

Alas, I too used to be a species of cinema moth, especially when I lived in Spain where the flicks are cheap and plentiful. I’d sometimes go two or three times a week (though if you were seeing an English language film you’ve have to be careful to choose a VO – a subtitled version – rather than the dubbed films which were impossible to follow.) As I’ve mentioned before I once saw Almodovar in one of these cinemas.

Even before that, and before cinemas here got horribly expensive, I’d go once or twice a week. The cinema was basically your only chance to see a film until it (maybe) came on the telly years later. If you missed it you’d have to wait and see if it ‘came round’ again as popular films sometimes did, otherwise you’d had your chance.

But nowadays I’m a bit of a sad sack when it comes to cinema-going. True, I’ve seen ‘Sorry We Missed You’ and a couple of others recently but that’s about it. I really wanted to go and see 1917 last night but things got in the way and when OH said ‘we could go another day,’ I said sadly, ‘Yes. But things always get in the way.’ Which they do. Anyway, the plan is for me to go alone to the 5.15 perf so that I make sure it actually happens. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile in a less exciting version of our evening we watched Dr Who (so-so, not one of the best episodes) and I continued with my box set of the stonking ‘Last Tango in Halifax.’

Kirk out