Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Art opening - The music photography of Jim Simpson

This week I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening of a fabulous photography exhibition, that I would encourage anyone to drop in on if they get a chance.

Havill & Travis is a new art gallery opened on Lonsdale road in Harborne, run by music promoter Dave Travis and fine art printer Gerv Havill.  The light and pleasant space is home this November to some spectacular photography from Jim Simpson, who was a musician himself, and later manager of the legendary Black Sabbath (represented here, photographed in Simpson's garden).

The black and white images, all captured in the 60s, show true global rock royalty on trips to the West Midlands.  There are hugely striking photos of Little Richard, at his most impish and mischievous, as well as unshowy portraits of Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Chuck Berry, The Move and an frankly stunning picture of the wonderful Nina Simone.

What is great in this small collection is not just that it adds to the iconic images we already have of these greats, but that there are also more intimate, candid shots of the musicians in full flow.  The late Jack Bruce grinning with a silly hat, or his drummer in Cream, Ginger Baker, lost in solo.  Also powerful is the inclusion of the audience in a number of the pictures, close to the performers, not always the flower-children we associate with the period, but ordinary Brummies, enjoying a show after a hard day (one imagines) on the shop floor.  One picture especially stuck me, of the Moody Blues performing in a club in Erdington, with the slightly dangerous-looking 60s lighting display stripping away the rock and roll legend and reminding us that these venues and people were real and despite seeming it, perhaps not that far removed from us today.

A Streetcar Named Desire - National Theatre Live @ The Electric Cinema

OK, so it wasn't live, live as I couldn't get tickets for that, but this was an "encore performance" of a live transmission of show, which was seen at over 1000 cinemas worldwide, live as it was performed in front of an audience at the New Vic, London.

Now I know what we have great theatre productions here in Brum, but let's not be too precious here, anything that extends access to these shows has to be a good thing, right?

The Electric is just perfect for this sort of thing too, such a wonderful building, and anywhere you can get served beer and olives whilst at your seat can't really do anything wrong in my eyes.

So, what's it like going to see a play at a cinema?  Surprisingly good, I felt.  My main worry was whether the sound was going to be poor, echoing unnaturally and detracting from the nuance of the performance.  I needn't have worried, the sound, and visuals, were captured well, whilst not trying to pretend that this wasn't live theatre - the audience were visible throughout, bringing the viewer into the experience.

As for the production?  A really electrifying performance all around, with Gillian Anderson especially powerful as the doomed Blanche, all self-delusion and fluttering movement.  It's not an easy watch, dealing as it does with some pretty grim subject matter, but leavened with moments of humour that just about make it bearable.

I imagine an actually live performance (as opposed to pre-recorded) would add an extra frisson to proceedings, really bringing the cinema viewer into the audience as much as those in the theatre itself, a feeling perhaps slightly distanced from those watching a recorded performance.  However, whether live or recorded, this is a format which has a lot of potential, and kudos to the Electric for embracing it.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Society of Authors - Awards

Recently I was fortunate enough to be invited to the prize giving bash of the Society of Authors, an organisation that exists to serve the interests of writers.  As an avid reader but many miles from being a professional writer, I did feel slightly like an interloper, but I am very glad I went.

As well as having the opportunity to see giants such as A.L. Kennedy and Philip Pullman in the flesh, the evening was a great chance to see writers in a kind of "home fixture".  The awards are presented for fiction, non-fiction and poetry and have categories by age of the writer, but what really separated them from the myriad other literary gongs was, for me, a sense of them being for writers, by writers.

I am sure that any recognition is welcome and rewarding for writers, but there must be something especially thrilling in being lauded by one's peers - others who really know what a tough job it is to actually get a whole damn book written down and out there.  A.L Kennedy, who presented the awards and gave an electrifying speech summed it up much better than I could hope to, and I won't attempt to paraphrase her, other than to say that she emphasised just how vital a job it is, to be able to evoke strong emotions in people you will never meet.  If you have spent years alone in a room forcing your ideas onto recalcitrant pages, I suspect you could never be told too often that you have made this connection.

I once saw a famous writer whose work I loved, sitting in a café, and agonised as to whether I should approach her and say how much her recent book had moved me, and made me see the world in a different way.  Would this seem creepy?  Intrusive?  Why on earth should she care what I think?  In the end I did so, and apologised for approaching her - she looked quizzical and asked why I would think she wouldn't want to hear such a positive reaction from a reader.  She may have just been being polite, of course, but I like to think that it was a good thing to do, to let them know that their work has really left a mark somewhere, in the heart of a total stranger.

Oh, and I also was alerted to "Idiopathy" by Sam Byers, an electric debut novel about thirty-something life that has had me actually laughing out loud, something that comic novels rarely do...

Monday, 16 June 2014

Where to get your coffee from

Guests at my house are often diplomatic about our choice of furniture, and turn a blind eye to the state of the garden, but one thing I do get compliments about is the coffee we brew.  I claim no credit for this, as it is a blend my partner puts together.  I won't tell you exactly how she does it (I couldn't - even if I knew, but it's an alchemical mystery to me.)  However, I can reveal where we source our raw materials from, and if anyone knows anywhere better in the region, I would love to hear of it. 

It's called "ARCO - all about coffee" and is in central Lichfield.  It's a little place, pleasingly traditional (to the extent of not having a website, at least, one I can find) with a good spread of roasts and tastes. 

Lichfield can be a bit of a trek from Birmingham, I know, but if you are thinking of heading out there, make a day of it, it's a beautiful place - the garden of the Erasmus Darwin house being a favourite of mine.

Monday, 2 June 2014

"To read"

Not necessarily in this order

There was an article on the Guardian website this weekend wondering how many books there is time left to read in your life, and the oppressive shudder of realising that it isn't really all that many. (At my rate I reckon I get through 40

a year these days, a figure that falls year on year as more and more technological delights vie for my time.  Which is not a complaint, by the way).

I feel fairly confident in saying that I am not the only one with a pile of books to read that never seems to get smaller, with additions coming to it at roughly twice the rate that they are cleared.  I've been thinking about whether this is a good thing - is the pile an enticing incentive to keep reading and a reminder of pleasures to come, or is it actually an oppressive reminder that you are never finished?

Morbid chap that I sometimes am, I have wondered what my pile will look like when I die - what books will I intend to read, pick out and order, and then never get to read.  What will be the final book too far? 

All in all I think the "to read pile" is a positive thing - the sight of the tottering tower usually gives me a tiny thrill - a shiver of anticipation that at least one of these books, probably more, are going to grab me my the throat, occupy my imagination completely and keep me up into the small hours day after day.

And whilst that is happening, the pile will keep growing...

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

In praise of...portion control

Not what we used to call moderation....
As someone devoted to baking, coffee shops and sitting down with a book, I am perhaps not the shining exemplar of healthy living and moderation, but I have recently come to think of (another) reason to prefer the indies of Brum over their corporate counterparts - portion size.
Since the first Starbucks opened in the UK in 1998, the world of the café has changed hugely, and you won't be hearing complaints from me that ordering a coffee leads one to expect more than some value-range instant granules and a splash of tepid water in a polystyrene cup.  We now have shabby-chic rather than just shabby, and a latte is generally understood as not being the same as "hot milky coffee".  However, as has been well commented on, we have also somehow managed to accept the "bucket" as an acceptable volume for a cuppa (with a correspondingly enormous price tag).  Capacious mugs, augmented with whipped cream, flavoured syrups (shudder) and chocolate sprinkles abound, and like the sheep we are, we "treat ourselves" again and again.  [Of course, this could be just me, but I don't want to think about this being a personal weakness, so will continue to spread the blame here...]
BUT - when one enters an independent café, this is often not the case.  Order a large cappuccino, and that it precisely what you get - a very large cup of whatever blend you wish for, but nonetheless something your grandmother would recognise as a "big cup", not as something comically outsize.  Whist this can sometimes feel stingy when you are used to the huge mugs the chains have, but once you take a reality check, you realise that feeling bloated on pint after pint of frothy milk and sugary additions is not the reason we loved coffee in the first place.

So, make mine a small!