Banished – TV Drama

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Banished – A stunning drama – The first and (sadly), the only series.

Video backI was completely hooked on this excellent 7 part series when it was transmitted earlier this year, and have been urging anyone who missed it to buy the DVD.

It was a stunning drama – the fact that Jimmy McGovern was the writer, almost guaranteed that we would have gritty realism, punches (many) to the heart and gut, and a lot of complex and nuanced issues to leave the viewer puzzling over – not to mention difficult challenges for the characters, who would be complex people.

The script then would be a wonderful starting point for a potentially brilliant drama, and ‘all’ that would then be needed would be equal brilliance from director, (Jeffrey Walker) technical crew, and most of all, some wonderful actors. Tick, Tick, TICK!

The background and setting is Australia, 1788, and the arrival of the first convict ship with transported criminals to be banished (some for life) into this new world. So, the convicts are one group, struggling in a harsh place, to survive. Then there are the military, here for a limited term of duty (but this is still in years) to keep those convicts under control. And then there is the governor, not a military man, a Crown appointed ruler. So, clearly some different agendas going on, and a wealth of potential conflicts. And also of course some other disparate people, with different agendas again – mainly, the representative of Divine Law – the Church, which in this case is in the guise of a Reverend (and his wife) who are deeply committed to saving souls.

And, almost greater than all of these individuals and their conflicts is the harsh, unknown, inaccessible continent itself. Reaching Australia was dangerous and hazardous, the colony will need to support itself – growing food, farming the livestock they brought with them, hunting what they can, and the difficulty of the journey means that it is impossible to know when more convict ships (with more supplies) will arrive, the present military will be relieved, or, indeed whether the mother country will remember its servants and its outcasts at all. And, even more unknown – what of any indigenous peoples, and will they be friend or foe, ‘savages’ who can be duped and exploited, or, perhaps, peoples to be respected and negotiated with.

Now the bad news, the very very very bad news is, that the BBC recently announced that there would not be a second series, so some of the threads which were clearly waiting to be developed will not happen – and the relationship with the indigenous peoples was clearly a strand for the second series, as, in the first series, almost the whole focus is ‘inside the colony’ with only one episode indicating that there might be some other human life outside the cleared area of the first settlement.

Please note, the fan made trailer below uses the dreadful trailer music employed by the Beeb on the show – it is not indicative of any in show soundtrack. I recently read an interesting article by James Gill on the Radio Times website about the dire inappropriate use of trailer music which seems snatched at random from a ragbag entitled ‘any old stuff for trailers’. I guess this is Auntie thinking this is the way to get down with the kidz and attract a younger generation. Seems a bit reductive/insulting/patronising to me. But then I’m not a kidz.

This is an absolutely operatic, epic, classical tragedy type piece, – the very antithesis of a familiar, little, domestic drama. Consider, for example, the fact that there are male and female convicts, but soldiers do not come with their wives or with their children. So, how are ‘men’s needs’ to be met – why, the female convicts of course. They are there as bounty, the soldiers’ creatures for the choosing. And it is a hanging offence (for male convicts) and a flogging (for females) for the convicts to have sexual relationships with each other.

Then there is the issue of how the female convicts  should be assigned. For fairness, lots are chosen, women will be the property of several men, and of course, higher ranking officers get dibs. Disobeying orders given by a superior officer is also a punishable offence. There are potential challenges between the military and the governor, with a more hard-line military leader, and a governor who is more idealistic, and with more ‘humane’ ideas (though still autocratic)

Even more pressing, with effectively 1 armed soldier to 10 convicts, in a situation where there is extreme shortage of food, where sex is a hanging offence, and heat and drought are extreme, the whole situation is a tinderbox of conflict. And this is not a confined prison where cons can be locked in a cell and all kept apart from each other. Compliance is needed for any kind of physical structures to be built. It is only the hostility of the land itself which prevents mass escapes. Or indeed any escape

Stinging tree” by CgoodwinOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Don’t even think about all the things which slither, scuttle, swim, crawl, hover or lumber ponderously, Oz even has lethal trees!

There are some wonderful central stories to follow. First are two sets of star crossed lovers. One is a more mature couple – the charismatic Julian Rhind Tutt as Tommy Barrett, who has fallen in love, on that voyage, with Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring) Quinn is a strong, forthright and equally charismatic woman. The two also have a fierce friendship with fellow convict, James Freeman, the magnificent Russell Tovey. Freeman’s story is the central one. He also loves Quinn – and has an equally strong bond of friendship with Barrett. So clearly, a painful struggle for him between sexual love and the strength of loyalty given between friends. The rules of the colony of course prohibit Quinn and Barrett being together, and Quinn is useable by the soldiers, and cannot choose refusal

Buring, Rhind Tutt, Tovey

Buring, Rhind Tutt, Tovey

The second star-crosseds are a young and beautiful pair, innocent and in some ways not yet tested by complexity. Pretty Katherine McVitie (Joanna Vanderham) has been falsely accused of theft by her jealous employer, because the master of the house tried to force himself upon her. She, and an idealistic young soldier, Private MacDonald (Ryan Corr) have fallen in love, and both are anxious that she should only be his bedfellow, and that she shall not have to share her favours. Unfortunately, MacDonald’s highest ranking superior, the Machiavellian, Iago like figure, Major Ross (Joseph Millson) – another stunning performance, the person you love to hate, also develops a growing obsession with McVitie

Hiss the villain - Millson

Hiss the villain – Millson

But there are many many more conflicts than these – every single character is nuanced, and at times divided against themselves, torn by different beliefs, different loyalties. It almost feels invidious to name any of the actors, as every one commits wonderfully to the piece, and many of the performances are brave, raw, and shocking.

However, it is James Freeman, more than any other character, who is tested, torn, challenged by some unbearable choices; he is forced to be both villain and hero, sometimes in the same instant. And I have to say that a number of times, in the series I was on the edge of my seat, literally shouting ‘No, NO, NO!’ as something absolutely inevitable was clearly going to happen, and Freeman would be both the perpetrator and the victim, and torn apart by conflict. And Russell Tovey rises to meet the challenges of playing this character beautifully. He is raw, subtle, ferocious, a brave maelstrom of emotion. At times watching him was almost uncomfortable because of the nakedness of the ugly struggles the character goes through – struggles with himself. It’s a performance without confines, almost going right up to the wire of being overdone, but I never felt that TOVEY was self-indulging. Where there was a sense of ‘overdoing the emo’ it was FREEMAN. It must be said that there was an excellence in performance by all,  and each actor was contributing to cranking up the standard of everyone else.

I SHALL be buying the DVD, for sure, but I am still kind of needing the astonishing power of the initial transmission of this to settle, before I am ready to watch it again.

The series was fairly rapturously received by viewers, but did not do well from the professional reviewers. However, there has been quite a strong campaign launched on social media to demand the BBC rethinks its decision not to go for a second series. Whether public affection can override a generally ridiculing response from the heavyweight papers, remains to be seen.

Jimmy McGovern

Jimmy McGovern

The heavyweight TV reviewers pretty well all  found the piece overdone and kind of uber-soapy. My word, though is ‘operatic’ , even ‘elemental’ not to mention, naked and dangerous – that’s because I really did ‘get’ the rawness of the world that those early convict ships and their entire community, were establishing.

It gets my very high fives.

And here is an interesting piece on the Beeb and its cutbacks, as well as more info about ‘Banished’ from a blogger who is external to WordPress, so I can’t appear her in the Posts That Caught My Beady Eye widget

Banished Amazon UK

Alas, Statesiders, this does not seem to have made it to your side of the pond.

Michael Robotham – Life or Death

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A very superior thriller indeed.

Life or DeathMichael Robotham’s Texan set thriller clearly owes a lot to Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption as a beginning, an idea, and a kind of relationship: Two convicts, ones the reader is absolutely meant to root for, in essence good and noble men, one black, one white. The white man, Audie Palmer, in theory is obviously in no way hardened, or dangerous, and is likely to get beaten and savaged. But somehow, he survives the ten years of his sentence, despite various inmates making sporadic beelines to try and kill him. He and the black man, Moss Webster, strike up a deep and quiet friendship during Palmer’s sentence.

Audie Palmer had confessed to an armed payroll robbery, in the course of which, 4 people died. The 7 million dollars taken in the robbery have never been found, and much of the violence meted out to Palmer in prison was from various inmates and guards and gangs anxious to beat the money’s hiding place out of him.

The novel opens the night before the end of Palmer’s sentence : he is to be released the next day. Instead of which, he escapes from prison, and goes on the run.

Something, in fact, pretty well everything, is not what it seems…….and the reader very quickly will come to the conclusion that despite confessing to the crime, Palmer is clearly innocent. So that becomes another question. And, whilst rapidly everyone starts frantically searching for Palmer, including not just local law enforcement officers, but the FBI, one of the FBI agents is also battling with a growing feeling that Palmer may indeed be innocent (so, shades of The Fugitive too)

Robotham builds a tightly twisting spider’s web of a story, with some useful red herrings thrown into the mix. Central to the plot is that ten year friendship between Moss and Audie, both their back stories, the strong women in their lives, Audie’s own background, figures with Mob connections, corrupt politicians and business leaders. And good police and bad police. And much more.

It’s a brutal story (if not always completely believable in terms of the amount of beatings, maimings, shootings and the like that the fictional human body survives) but what lifts it above just another thriller is the strong characterisations (although I do have a cavil, here too) and the extremely well drawn relationships. Audie and Moss, and their respective significant others are all extremely attractive characters, whom the reader will care about, and have empathy with, and this is also a big plus for this book. You will be involved, without a doubt.

There are also a lot of very ignoble, unattractive villains, with little redeemable about them, and, because they are out to get the people we care about, it is a classic battle between good and evil and the reader will root for the heroes and want the villains to get their justs, too

And then there is that FBI agent who all the way through smells rats……and rather knows the rat is not at all Palmer. Special Agent Desiree Furness is a brilliant operative. And she is shrimp sized, and despite being as tough, feisty, brave and fit as any ripped muscle hunk in the Feds, is under a huge disadvantage as her size makes everyone think she is a wee teen. And she gets permanently teased and humiliated. However, she is made of very strong stuff indeed, gives as good as she gets, and provides much of the necessary humour in the book, as she can outclass most of those who patronise her in wit, sass and intelligence. Moss too has a nice line in not only repartee, but his own internal thoughts about matters, as related by Robotham (the book is third person narrative) :

Moss is not a lover of the countryside. He’s city born and bred, preferring to know the proximity of his nearest takeout than seeing newborn lambs gambolling in a meadow or a field of wheat shivering in the breeze. The countryside has too many things that buzz, bite, slither or growl, and it also happens to be full of murderous hicks who think lynching black men should still be a recognised sport, especially in parts of the South

At the start of this interview with Robotham, the interviewer starts by saying ‘you are a lovely man – why crime writing’ – and, as I’m sure you will agree, Robotham does indeed come across as someone comfortable in his heart, comfortable in his skin

If I couldn’t quite go fully surrendered 5 star on this it was for two reasons. Firstly, in order to make all those many cliffhanging tension moments that are scattered in the various chases (all very filmic), there were rather too many coincidences for my liking, and in fact I did think, ‘this is filmic in structure – I could ‘see’ the cutaways, and indeed hear the kind of soundtrack playing in my head – it for sure will get made for the screen. I would lay money on that, even if not quite a missing 7 million dollars!

Author Michael Robotham

Author Michael Robotham

And the second reason is that though absolutely excellently done our heroes and our villains are on the one hand a little too noble and on the other, a little too unremittingly sulphurous in their villainy. I do prefer the greater discomfort of nuance.

And………I admit to crying at the end of the book…………but it was a little crossly……..there is a ‘wrap’ which in terms of the sentiments expressed (which I wouldn’t necessarily argue with) came across as veering into sentiment and corn. So, I kind of felt a little manipulated. Now I have no objection to crying, but prefer that emotional response to not feel ‘worked on’ – this was a bit cue Hollywood, swelling sobbing strings.

But then, as Robotham says, part of his intention with this one was to write a love story

I received this as a review copy from the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK

Life or Death Amazon UK
Life or Death Amazon USA

Tana French – Faithful Place

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Tragedies of epic, archetypical themes.

Faithful PlaceSo, with Faithful Place, the third book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, I finally reach the end of a fairly concentrated immersion in matters murky, Dublin, French style. I started out of order, reading her two latest books, Broken Harbour and The Secret Place, following strong recommendations by a couple of savvy bloggers, Fleur In Her World and Cleopatra Loves Books, got immediately hooked, and then embarked on 1-3

I think the fact that I read my first Tana French, Broken Harbour, 6 weeks ago, and finished this one last week, probably says much more about French’s compulsive, interesting, quality writing than this particular review can. I did read other books as well in that period, mainly because, however brilliant a writer is, (in fact, particularly if they are brilliant!) I don’t think a solo immersion is useful – it can get a bit like only eating one kind of food. However delicious, the palate gets jaded, and other sustenance, other nutrients are required, both for variety and to sustain appreciation for that favourite.

Even so, as I started each new French, I was wondering ‘have I overdone it, will I be too immured into her style, her tricks, her vision, so that I get a ‘oh, here we go again’. Well, bravo, Tana French, because I didn’t.

Now that’s not to say I didn’t guess, fairly early on, the who-dunnit of Faithful Place – French has a clearly short list of potential perps, and drops some clues early on, so we know early on who both the herrings, and the do-er of dastardly-deeds might be. But the person who did it is never the major focus of French’s writing. She is a writer of time, of place, of society, and, above all, the close and frequently (in her novels at least) dysfunctional nature of family. Out of particular families, in the time and place of their culture, the happenings arise.

Reading all 5 books in a short time scale, what I got, increasingly, was a kind of Greek Tragedy, the chorus is given by the ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ – except, that in each book, a spotlight shifts, bringing different members of that chorus, different detectives and their side-kicks and team partners, out from the background, into centre stage, which they then share with the particular crime being investigated. And sometimes, as with this book, the detective and the particular crime have uncomfortably close associations.

Each of her books make one detective centre stage, but a central character in one will crop up as a not-quite-peripheral, or even as a major minor player in another.

But this book has a particularly challenging protagonist/instigator-and-victim of fate. We met Frank Mackey as a powerful, charismatic, dynamic figure in The Likeness. Mackey heads up Undercover Operations. We don’t know too much about his past, but he is hugely influential in The Likeness. And he will appear again as a slippery, influential player in The Secret Place, attractive and manipulative by turns. In those two novels, the reader sees pretty well only Mackey’s mask.

In this book, he is slap bang in the centre, and the source of his complex and damaged personality, and how that damage is used both positively and in a retrograde way, comes clear. He is like some kind of scorpion figure. Scorpions (well, female scorpions) are fiercely protective of their families – and the family, in this context, may spread far wider than blood family. But, as all know, their sting is deadly, and a wide berth should be kept!

Mackey is certainly not an attractive figure here. The book is told in his voice, and that voice is generally brutal, unforgiving, self serving. What redeems him is his love for his precocious daughter, Holly. And his love for his ex-wife, Olivia, though it is largely Mackey’s driven, controlling, self-protective angry personality which made Olivia end the marriage.

Mackey came from a very dysfunctional family indeed. Father an alcoholic, unskilled, though with a huge potential which was never realised, due to neighbourhood enmities going back a generation; mother a manipulating fearful and aggressive mammy martyr. And the 5 children, Carmel, Shay, Frank, Kevin, Jackie, the battleground on which the parental war was played out.

One of my da’s tragedies was always the fact that he was bright enough to understand just how comprehensively he had shat all over his life. He would have been a lot better off thick as a plank

Frank Mackey, back in his teenage years, had a secret first love, Rosie Daly. Theirs was a Romeo and Juliet affair as the Daly and Mackey fathers were sworn enemies. Frank and Rosie were deep in the planning of elopement and escape to England, but the night they had set for this to happen, Rosie didn’t show, and left a note for Frank, saying that she was going to England and was sorry to hurt him. This devastating blow to his idealistic dreams not only damaged, for life, his ability to trust, be intimate and open with anyone, but also meant that he also ran away from his own home, that night. He had after all, planned to do this with Rosie, now he did it alone. Twenty two years later he is  still estranged from his family who never forgave him for leaving. The enmity between the Mackeys and the Dalys has also grown, as the Daly family had been convinced, given that both Frank and Rosie vanished on the same night, that they had gone together, and that somehow Frank must have abandoned Rosie in England, and returned to build a better life for himself as a member of the Garda. The community don’t have much liking for the Garda.

But now, twenty two years later, events happen which fling open all the doors revealing community cupboards full to bursting with skeletons.

It took me a little longer to surrender to this book than most of the others – and in the main it is because of the challenges of an unlikeable central character. French manages this brilliantly, but Frank’s heat, and rage are uncomfortable to be with. But for sure you are made to fully understand and engage with why Frank’s aggression, despair and anger are as they are – and he is also a man who struggles and positively tries to engage with his shadows.

And it also has to be said that Mackey’s dark wit keeps the reader going. His is an unkind humour, but he is amusing

A handful of ten-year-olds with underprivileged hair and no eyebrows were slouched on a wall, scoping out the cars and thinking wire hangers. All I needed was to come back and find that suitcase gone. I leaned my arse on the boot, labelled my Fingerprint Fifi envelopes, had a smoke and stared our country’s future out of it until the situation was clear all round and they (expletive deleted meaning ‘went away’) …to vandalise someone who wouldn’t come looking for them

Gaby Gerster—Laif/Redux

Gaby Gerster—Laif/Redux

Faithful Place Amazon UK Faithful Place Amazon USA

Kate Forsyth – Bitter Greens

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Easy read Bon-Bon with surprisingly satisfying dark, tough centre. And a feminist, and erotic tale, to boot!

Bitter GreensThis is a clever page turner, kind of easy, kind of straight forward. Absorbing, almost compulsively engaging until you realise that there’s a lot more going on, including neat and clever games with plot – a story being told within the central story which is also yet another story. Yet Kate Forsyth manages this without confusion or artifice, and the reader can easily hold the braided threads together

Bitter Greens is both a historical novel, a romance, and a fantasy, a fairy story – and at the centre of it all, are 3 strong female characters, fighting the powerlessness of a woman’s lot, in their differing ways. (And, of course, twining 3 stories together is a kind of plait of stories, to mirror the plait of hair – more of which, later)

The central character is a real character, who lived in Versailles, the King’s Court, during the reign of the autocratic Louis XIVth, the Sun King, to whom she was related, This was the time when the Catholic ruling elite were moving towards the eventual stifling of ‘dissenting’ Protestant religion. Louis XIVth’s reign saw the degree of religious toleration brought in by his grandfather, Henri of Navarre, being rapidly eroded. Louis was very far from being a tolerant king, and in 1685 revoked the freedom of worship act, The Edict of Nantes, which had been passed in Henri of Navarre’s reign. Huguenots were forced to ‘convert’, and to try to leave the country in order to avoid this, was punishable in some cases, by death.

Louis XIV in 1685, the year he revoked the Edict of Nantes. Unknown artist, Wiki Commons

Louis XIV in 1685, the year he revoked the Edict of Nantes. Unknown artist, Wiki Commons

Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the main character, (whose childhood nickname in the book is Bon-Bon) was a relatively plain, highly intelligent woman, one of Louis’ cousins, who became a well regarded writer. She had several lovers, but did not marry (scandalously) till she was middle-aged. Her family were Huguenot, and she ‘converted’ to Catholicism, around the time when such conversions were enforced. She was exiled by Louis to a convent (a fate imposed on many women who displeased men, and particularly, a fate meted out to Huguenot women) So, ‘Bitter Greens’ is her first person narrated story, mainly taking place at the end of the seventeenth century, in that convent, as she looks back on her life. However, Charlotte-Rose is the writer who is known as the author of the fairy-tale initially known as Persinette – (a kind of variant on Parsley,which features in the story) ‘Persinette’ later was retold by the Brothers Grimm as ‘Rapunzel’ – or, to give it a similarly herbal flavour, a variant on ‘rampion’

Rapunzel is of course the story of the powerlessness of a young girl, who falls foul of a powerful witch, and is imprisoned in a tower (or convent, in Charlotte-Rose’s case, after she fell foul of a powerful despotic monarch) It is also a deeply erotic story, though the eroticism is covert in the children’s version. Rapunzel is rescued by (who else) a prince who climbs her outrageously snaky, ever-growing, shimmering ladder of hair.

However, an earlier version of the story exists, from the pen of an Italian writer, Giambattista Basile, published some 60 years earlier, as Forsyth relates, but scholars have puzzled how (or if) Charlotte-Rose might have read it as the story was written in Neapolitan, and was not translated out of Neapolitan till many years after Charlotte-Rose’s death. As she never went to Italy, and did not speak Neapolitan, it is something of a mystery. One which Forsyth wonderfully disentangles, explores, invents, surmises.

So, the second story is that of ‘Marguerite’ a fairy story told by a wise nun, who is the convent’s infirmarian and herbalist, Soeur Seraphina. Marguerite, (another plant, name ‘Daisy’) of course, is the girl who becomes ‘Persinette’ and she too, like Charlotte-Rose, will transcend the powerlessness imposed on her by the witch.

Where do malevolent witches come from, however – in this story, we get to understand, and see a further story about the powerlessness and lack of choices available to women.

It is a marvellous tale within a tale within a tale – and, moreover, Forsyth upends the ‘victim’ status of her imprisoned female, – though there are some attractive princes, even princes may be imprisoned by those more powerful than they – kings, fathers opposed to rebellious sons.

Interspersed are also various poems by other writers on the ‘Rapunzel’ theme.

Hopefully, the fact that I’ve unpicked some of the rich substance to the story will not put potential readers off – this is a wonderfully told tale, with 3 extremely interesting major characters, one of whom (Charlotte-Rose) is wonderfully witty, sardonic, amused – and a remarkably sensual woman as well as a highly intelligent one. So the book has its degree of raunch as well!

There is a wealth of historical, literary, artistic information, in here, but Forsyth wears her obviously careful research lightly, seamlessly, gracefully. You learn without ‘being lectured’Kate Forsyth

Highly recommended, and I shall certainly investigate her second book for adults, which again mixes history and fairy story as it is about one of the Brothers Grimm.

Bitter Greens Amazon UK
Bitter Greens Amazon USA

Arvo Part – Lamentate

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Bleak, deep and curiously comforting

lamentateI’ve been devotedly in thrall to the pared down, often stripped to the bone, music of Arvo Part, for some years. Part, arguably Estonia’s best known citizen, created his particular style of minimalism, ‘tintinnabuli’, based on the close harmonic overtones heard in the ‘tintinnabulation’ when a bell is struck. Part’s stunning music is not just empty stylistics, however, but always arises from his own deep connection to the numinous, to deep reflection, to his faith.

Nearly 80 now, he continues to sear the listener with the potency and deep reflection in his work. His music is always something best listened to with full, awake, attention. And the silence and space between notes is as much part of the soundscape as the heard music.


Hilliard, Da Pacem Domine

This particular CD consists of 2 works, a short a capella choral piece, Da Pacem Domine, beautifully floated by The Hilliard Ensemble, and a long orchestral piece Lamentate.

Lamentate was inspired when Part saw Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas in The Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, and had a kind of cataclysmic, cathartic experience from how he was affected by it. ‘Lamentate’ is not a lament, as is often the case in sacred ‘Lamentations’ for the dead, it is a lamentation for the living – for the fact that we are all in relationship to the knowledge of our own, individual mortality. Whether we consciously seek to live with awareness of that, or whether we live in denial, it shapes us.

As Part’s notes on this piece reflect :

I have written a lamento – not for the dead, but for the living, who have to deal with these issues for themselves. A lamento for us, struggling with the pain and hopelessness of the world.


Here is the whole of Lamentate, in a version with Diana Liiv, piano. Lexington Symphony, conductor Jonathan McPhee. Sound quality not wonderful though

From the crushing, weighty opening two movements, where it almost feels as if an implacable indifferent force will roll over the listeners, annihilating them, in the third movement small, fragile, simple, beautiful and hesitant pause filled lines of melody arise, carried by the solo piano. Later, these lines, are taken up, turn by turn, by other instruments. It’s almost like an offer and an acceptance of tenderness, some comfort from another. Again and again, there are musical lines which arise, phrases which never quite complete and resolve – the ending is inevitable, but the answer can only be a kind of accommodation, a trying, a beauty created from a greater embodiment, so the ‘being here’ is more and more fully realised.

These crushings, these solo questings, these arisings of musical line from the solo piano which are then taken up, questioned again by other instruments, are like some kind of manifestation of grace – the comfort of human consolation and connection in the face of the inevitability of death

Part’s own history and background in devotional music is within the Eastern Orthodox Church, but there are even threads of musical influences from Arabic music in one of the movements, Lamentabile.

The whole movement of the piece, with the return, again and again to the knowledge of our mortality which shapes our living, is towards a deepening richness that comes from ‘living with knowledge’

And, though not in any way (obviously!) a great fanfare of a triumphal piece, it is a piece which is astonishingly beautiful, moving…and though I surrendered to it quite viscerally, getting flattened by the implacable opening, slowly having little green shoots of growth, moving towards the light of day, connecting, and then being flattened, the whole was about ‘responding in the here and now’arvopart

As I reflected (as the piece makes the listener do so) I was reminded of the work of existentialist humanist psychotherapist Irving Yalom, and his books, specifically, Love’s Executioner and Staring At The Sun. This music takes the same journey, and encourages ‘Living Awake’

The performance in my CD version, (not the You Tube version here) is from the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Alexei Lubimov, piano, and conducted by Andrey Boreyko. And it is all magnificent.

Arvo Part Lamentate Amazon UK
Arvo Part Lamentate Amazon USA

Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association – Wild Swimming Walks

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A stunning labour of love and a clarion call to delight and achievement!

Wild swimming walksAs a lover of wild walking for almost all my adult life, and a devotee of wild water swimming for many years, it almost felt as if someone (well, to be honest, as this book was created by a wonderful and inspired collective group of women) that is, a collection of wise, doughty and joyful someones, produced a book which absolutely fits me. To save all my friends buying me this for Christmas I’ve stolen a march on them and got it, pronto, for myself.

Now this book may have a practical appeal just for those who live in the more-or-less-greater London area, but it is also an object of visual style and beauty, from the delectable cover, designed by James Lewis, to the wealth of wonderful photos taken of the watery destinations, and the walkers and swimmers themselves. So, if I didn’t plan to use the book, it would still be one to aesthetically appreciate.

Moving on to the purely practical, this is a brilliantly put together book – not only are the instructions clear, but there are useful details of start/finish by public transport, length of each walk, time taken, ease or difficulty of the walk, details about the swimming aspects – for example, depth, ease of access to the water, details of the refreshments available (oh yay!) graphics on a map of the route, details of the precise OS map it can be found on – and, even better there are details of how you can access each map on line to printout and/or to email to a smart phone. This is stunningly helpful, and is part, I believe, of the approach that the publishers, Wild Things Publishers, have taken with their series of books.

So, an astonishingly well thought out package, in terms of both practicality and style – the book itself is far too beautiful to sully by cramming into a walking bag – particularly as eventually wet bathers will be dripping into said bag, nor would I want to break the spine of this book in my printer/scanner/copier just to print out the instructions.

There is also additional historical information about wild swimming, and rights of way, which may spur readers to further thought about the land and our relationship to it. Plus very sensible practical advice to those who may be unaccustomed to the delights of pond, lake, river or sea and only have swum whilst under the influence of chlorination. Magic awaits!

Many thanks to the authors, the contributors and the publishers for a gorgeous addition to my various walking books, and I shall enjoy both stepping out and pretending to be an otter, working my way through the 28 wild water and land experiences.

Oh…and the undoubtedly lovely photo of a swimmer in the River Cam is not one of the delectable ones from this book, which are all copyrighted, but is a Wiki Commons

I have a kind of arms length interest here – I have had nothing whatsoever to do with the making of this book, but I am a long time swimmer in the amazing Kenwood Ladies Pond, and do know many of those who are to be hugely congratulated for this brilliant book. Which was NOT an ARC – I have been impatiently waiting to spend my hard earned dosh on what I knew was going to be stunning!

Wild Water Swimmers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your bathers!

Wild Swimming Walks Amazon UK
Wild Swimming Walks Amazon USA

Simon Mawer – Tightrope

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From falling to balancing on an ever finer wire

TightropebigWhen I finished Mawer’s last book, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, I felt shocked and almost a little bemused by the abrupt ending – though I also reflected that I had no idea what other ending might have been suitable. And I also found it a plus in that book that not every thread had been explained, not every character really revealed and understood.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was a fictional story, with an initial inspiration coming from the fact that during the Second World War, 39 women had been recruited as agents from England by SOE (Special Operations Executive) to be parachuted into occupied France, to work with the Resistance. What kind of people were these incredibly brave, but also, perhaps unusually addicted to the adrenaline rush, women? Mawer’s book centres on Marian Sutro, a naïve and adventurous young English woman with a Swiss French mother, brought up bilingual, recruited as an SOE agent, eagerly learning the arts of duplicity, subterfuge, living dangerously. Despite all the undoubted danger Sutro is also, in one sense, living free – escaping convention, escaping her family, her past, her history, inventing new identities – and living with a mission, making a difference.

When I realised that Mawer’s new book, Tightrope, would continue Sutro’s story, but would bring her into the period of the cold war, everything fell into place. And I had even more admiration for Mawer, because nothing about the first book, despite the advantage, now, of hindsight, screamed ‘sequel’. Sometimes books with sequels planned are highly unsatisfying BECAUSE they seem structured for book 2.

Tightrope is quite an uncomfortable book in many ways. How does someone who has lived in such an extraordinary way, with preternaturally sharpened senses, prepared to kill, prepared to lie, cheat, use sex casually and ruthlessly to relieve an overwhelming itch or as another tool of manipulation, then manage to live, after the war, back in suburbia, in a more narrowly confined way? That is Mawer’s exploration, and Sutro’s challenging journey.

Mawer gives us a world with a character who is always going to be, a naturally unreliable narrator. Actually, the reader can probably be a lot more sure of Sutro than anyone else within the book can be!

Did I believe the story she told me? I really don’t know. It is perfectly possible to believe two contradictory things at one and the same time – that is one of the brilliant faculties of the human mind. Without it we’d have no war and no religion and precious little else that separates us from the other species.

As a cavil, I wasn’t completely sure about some of Sutro’s sexual encounters, and at times, I was very aware that the writer was male, and wondered how differently a female writer might have explored writing a woman who uses sex without intimacy, in part because of the professional need to hide vulnerability, – which of course includes becoming emotionally intimate – and who also uses sex as an escape from some of the horrors of her past experiences, and as an escape from the humdrum. It wasn’t the fact of Sutro’s sexuality which I was ‘unsure’ about, or even her degree of distance, but (perhaps inevitably) I was aware of the gender of the writer. The sex scenes take place in many ways quite clinically, from the outside, and were where I could not quite engage with the inner world of what Sutro was feeling – I think a female writer may have given a little more insight into Sutro’s emotional responses here.

Nonetheless, I found this a completely absorbing, dislocating, sometimes frightening book. The structure is clever, we learn her story backwards and forwards, and it is partly narrated by Sam Wareham, who initially meets Marian when she is 24 and he is 12. Sam is the son of a family friend, and as the story proceeds into the 50s, and he becomes a young man, from time to time his story connects with Marian. The edgy, shifting politics, as the countries who were Allies during the war shift, split, and take up new positions relative to each other, and the very real spectre of a nuclear arms race gallops apace, from the first horrific atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the race for a thermonuclear device, the hydrogen bomb. Sutro is still at the heart of all this, as her brother, and also the man she first fell in love with, as a sheltered teenager before the war, both became physicists, working on nuclear fission and fusion.

On the desert island, the device called Ivy Mike detonated. A double flash, the flash of the primary followed microseconds later by the flash of the secondary. The primary was a plutonium bomb of the Nagasaki type, releasing a storm of X-rays that flowed down into the secondary and impacted upon the hydrogen atoms in the vacuum flask so fiercely that they fused into helium and, for a fragment of time, into all the atoms of creation and a few more besides……..The island on which the device had been constructed vanished entirely. The thermonuclear age had begun.

I was left with perhaps a clearer understanding of why some ‘real’ individuals may have acted in certain ways which seemed incomprehensible or motivated solely by motives of personal gain or a kind of emotional pathology. Without preaching, or indeed special pleading, Mawer makes the reader examine the moral maze of the times.

And, for what it’s worth, the ending of this book is wonderfully satisfying. Mawer brings in, in both books, the idea of a rather fiendish chess game variant, where you only see your own pieces on your own board, and can’t see the moves your opponent is playing – this becomes a kind of metaphor for Marian, as she begins to be drawn into still deadly games in a world ostensibly at peace. And, yes, Mawer too is playing that game, and the end, where he finally shows us the board with all its pieces, the game across two books, is brilliant, and I laughed in delight and admiration.Mawer

I received this as an ARC from the publishers, Little Brown, via Netgalley. UK publication is on June 4th, but ALAS Statesiders, I’ve had an email from the publishers to say you will have to wait until November 3rd. Isn’t that CRUEL. I suggest booking a holiday next month in the UK and making the nearest decent bookshop a first item on your tour. Otherwise, i suppose there is ordering from the UK, or calling in favours from your UK resident family or friends

Tightrope Amazon UK
Tightrope Amazon USA

John Adams – Harmonielehre

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A razzle-dazzle Rattle-Battle!

Harmonielehre 1994A youngish Simon Rattle recorded this thrilling version of John Adams equally thrilling Harmonielehre in 1993, (and it was released in 1994) well in the middle of his tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it is a stunning, exhilarating ride.

My EMI classics version comes with disc notes which made my eyes and brain spin, , full of references to how Adams’ piece nods to Schoenberg’s writing on harmony, and tracing the Minimalist movement in the States, but these were not notes which spoke particularly to me.

Harmmonielehre back

I first heard this piece in a concert devoted to ‘minimalists’ and though I’d gone for pieces by two of my favourites, Part and Glass, this was the piece that sang out to me.

What did make sense to me (both in the notes for that concert, and the liner notes here) is that the initial inspiration came from a dream which Adams had had, of a huge tanker rising out from the San Francisco Bay and taking flight.

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The terror and the shock and the glory of this is there in the explosive beginning. I remember the first time I heard it, like some sort of rollercoaster punch to the gut, nearly lifting me out of my seat. There is so much beauty in the frequently returned to power of this waking kraken, roaring out of the deep. Perhaps the surprise of the piece though is the delicacy and grace, a musical line also arises and is sweet, flowing, lyrical. The arch of musical line and the brute force of pulse, shimmer, repetition and development, the little threads of change which I find so exciting in minimalism, seem to tussle, tangle and weave with each other. It’s like a dialogue between grace and power, powerful grace, graceful power.

(if you stay with the Youtube, it will automatically spool on to continue playing this piece, cut into the sections Youtube uploads generally seem to arrive in)

The second movement surrenders its opening completely to an expressive, expansive, unwinding, like coming free from gravitational pull. And curiously reminded me of the dreamy languor of Debussy, particularly L’Apres Midi d’un faun. But just when it seemed safe to drift dreamwards, Adams begins to wind everything up, and there’s another kind of dialogue between dynamic tension, forward propulsion and the slow unwinding. I found this marvellous to listen to ‘in my body’, like some kind of sympathetic nervous system/parasympathetic nervous system juxtaposition – heart speeds, heart slows, heart speeds, heart slows.

And then there is the third movement. Oh my. All shimmer, geometric, like light on the surface of water on a lake, with a running breeze creating an extraordinary visual effect. This movement seemed, at times, quite Glasslike, his kind of hypnotic bright shimmers, lulling and rocking the listener, and firing them up, little jolts of change of rhythm and musical line. And finally, power, energy as that tanker pulls out to the stars

A wonderful piece, both playful and sombre, filled with sunlight and crackling with thunder and electrical storm.

John Adams

           John Adams

The additional pieces on this CD are the mischievous ‘The Chairman Dances’, taking some music from Adams opera Nixon In China. It is subtitled ‘A Foxtrot for the Orchestra’ and, yes, the listener rather wants to cavort and twirl! And it is happy/silly, like some of the early Penguin Café Orchestra – particularly, Telephone and Rubber Band, all wrapped up in a centre of dance orchestra stateliness.

The CD is completed by two fanfares, the first, Tromba Lantana is almost melancholic, introspective, and then the final, titled ‘Short Ride In A Fast Machine’ is precisely that, another shot of high energy octane, a big shout of fun and celebration

This marvellous CD – both the execution of the pieces, and the programme itself, is a wonderful celebration/showcase of a composer who is so much more than merely a minimalist party liner.

Rattle having fun with the Berlin Philharmonic

Rattle having fun with the Berlin Philharmonic

The version I have is the 2007 re-release of the original 1994. I’ve included both links to the UK site, it is only the cover which differs (and, for all I know, the liner notes) It is also available as an mp3 download, and the usual ‘snippets available’ for 30 second appraisal.

There seem to be limited copies, and slightly different pricing, on the physical discs. The Stateside site, more sensibly, merges the two rather than confusedly having two listings

Harmonielehre John Adams/Simon Rattle/CBSO 1994 Amazon UK
Harmonielehre John Adams/Simon Rattle/CBSO 2007 Amazon UK
Harmonielehre John Adams/Simon Rattle/CBSO Amazon USA

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No 5 in D minor

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Truth trapped in a pressure cooker

Shostakovich BernsteinThis extraordinary piece of music (the 5th Symphony – Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, 1960 recording) is here given a wondrous interpretation – though I do have one cavil (more of which later)

Shostakovich was for a while a Soviet darling. His music indelibly Russian, strong, heroic – though of course music without words is a particularly subtle medium of expression. Because it is wordless, and because in the end its reception, in the listener’s ears, sinews, guts, heart, is so subjective, it can be far more covertly subversive than art-form using words, which can be coldly scrutinised and analysed by those looking to outlaw heterodoxy. And the complexity of classical music is a particularly good hiding place, especially as performance itself, of the same notation, can uncover different meanings.

Shostakovich fell from grace when his music was combined with narrative and words – the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Stalin walked out of a performance, and that was enough. The composer was then living on the edge; a dangerous time and place to stand accused of being ‘unprogressive’ . Men and women were incarcerated in mental hospitals and labour camps for revisionism or being ‘anti-Soviet’ and of course the labels were often cut by apparatchiks to fit all manner of breaches of a constantly shifting Party Line.

Dmitri Shostakovich

The controversial 5th symphony was composed in 1937, and represented Shostakovich’s (ostensible) desire to make amends; he described it as ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ So its controversy resides in part in interpretation and re-interpretation. Did Shostakovich sell-out? Is he therefore pariah as far as other, braver dissenters of the time are concerned? Or (given the possibility of music without words to embrace subtle nuances of meaning) was the piece itself more subversive, still, than the party line ‘approvers’ believed?

A document published in 1979, after the composer’s death, ‘The Testimony’ reported something Shostakovich said :

I think that is it clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth – it’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ‘Your business is rejoicing, Your business is rejoicing’ and you rise shakily and go off muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing

And here interpretation in performance plays its part, and where my cavil arises over this otherwise glorious performance.

In 1960 when this recording was made, Bernstein to some extent I think – particularly as he performed this IN Russia with the New York Philharmonic as part of a cultural exchange, friendship programme – plays the finale ‘triumphally’ This was of course ‘pre-Testimony’. He takes the final movement at a fairly ferocious lick. And this has the effect of reducing a particular quality of blaring, shocking dissonance which, when taken a tithe slower, because it is more held, is physically more edgy, uncomfortable, harsh, rather than triumphant. Certainly, a couple of live concerts I’ve attended, in the last couple of years, where this work has been performed, a slight slowing of the pace makes any idea of ‘triumph’ seem full of mockery. In fact, the most recent concert of it, the final notes feel like the end of the world, the ferocious mechanical energy, representing the heavy, productive blows of Soviet industry, which occur in the final movement, speak not of the glory of rising output and economic growth, but of ‘the cost, oh the cost of human life and spirit – it is individual man and woman being beaten under those hammers” Or, as the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich rather more succinctly said

Anybody who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot

In this version (recorded in 1959) the finale definitely suggests the ‘triumph over adversity’ which the Party Line wanted from its artists, the music is spritely, vigorous optimistic and energetic

Here is Lenny conducting that finale again, 20 years later, and some 90 seconds slower. To my mind, this gives the contrast between the hugely dynamic aspects and the slower, more reflective harmonious sections a kind of manic, angsty, almost deranged quality to the big blaring blusters, like public pronouncements

Leonard bernstein

However, whatever interpretation the composer intended, whether he bowed to pressure or whether the symphony represents a resistant call to those who wish to hear it, one thing IS clear, this is a stunning, profound piece of music. The fact that it has so many possibilities inherent for discovery within it, the fact that performance itself yields such diversity, is testament to its richness

And I do, despite missing the end of the world bleakness of the finale which is uncovered at slightly slower tempo – it is, after all, marked as allegro non troppo, rather than allegro – think this is a wonderfully rich and satisfying interpretation

This version is completed by Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F major with Bernstein conducting from the piano.

Though I must admit, such is the power of the Symphony, that I am musicked out and reeling with wrung out emotion and can’t contemplate listening to anything else.

Rarely has the edgy yet bleak despair after the devastation of war, the horror and emptiness of militaristic blare, the utter exhaustion of a kind of inevitable surrender to the posturings of spin, and the end of the world been so beautifully done. The little threads of quiet hope which arise throughout the piece, the small moments of peace and harmony, have nothing to do with the state. Though crushed, again and again, ‘and still they rise’

(Quotes from ‘Testament’ and from Mstislav Rostropovich are from the CD liner notes)

What a piece, what a stunning piece

As stated, the version I have (which Gramophone Magazine particularly lauded) is a long ago recording, and remastered. I can’t find the version on Amazon’s US site, though there are pairings of that recording with other second pieces.

Here is the link to the Amazon UK version I have and it is also available as an mp3 download, so you can hear snippets from each movement of this interpretation

Shostakovich Symphony No 5, Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Amazon UK

Tana French – The Likeness

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“Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat. I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that” Lyrics, ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream

The LikenessI’ve been working my way pretty compulsively through Tana French, Irish literary crime fiction writer’s books, since coming to her fourth book Broken Harbour, on the strength of two book reviewers blogs. Stand forth Fleur In Her World and Cleopatra Loves Books

Having just finished The Likeness, her second book, I’m reeling, punch drunk, from the emotional journey of this, which for sure must take part of its inspiration from Donna Tartt’s first explosive novel, The Secret History, but is nonetheless in no way derivative, and is all imbued with French’s own intelligence, style, and intricate character and plotting.

Cassie Maddox, the central detective of her gripping first novel, In The Woods, is still feeling the after-shocks of the crime she investigated. No longer in the Murder Squad, she has relocated to the quieter shores of the Domestic Violence Unit, and has begun a relationship with one of the detectives from the murder squad.

The Likeness does read as a stand-alone, for anyone who has not read In The Woods, and anything which the reader needs to know as background does get dripped into the story of this, as Cassie herself continues to come to terms with the events of In The Woods.

We learn something about her professional back-story, too – unfortunately, this is a major spoiler which I think the publishers chose to reveal, and it represents my major criticism of this book (not French’s fault) Cassie worked for a time a few years ago in Undercover Ops, infiltrating a drug ring. Her invented identity was that of a woman called Alexandra (Lexie) Madison. And then a body is found, in a derelict cottage, clearly a very recent murder victim. The wallet on the body shows the victim is called Lexie Madison. Running the identity through the police computer brings in the big gun of Undercover ops, Frank Mackey, who ran Cassie as Lexie. The shock is that this Lexie Madison is a double for the very much alive Cassie Maddox.

The dead Lexie was part of an elite group of 5 post-graduate students, close friends, living in a beautiful, decaying mansion, Whitethorn House, on the outskirts of Glenskehy, a small backwater in the Wicklow Mountains. Inevitably police interest centres initially on the others in the group, but their stories all stack up, and the group are united in their grief that one of theirs is dead. And there are other suspects, which link in to Ireland’s deep history going back through generations, and the tensions arising out of class and nationality – the working class and the peasantry of old Ireland, and the wealthy Anglo Irish landowners.

Irish history is firmly woven into all French’s novels.

So, an audacious plan is set in place (and I’m afraid it is the spoiler of the blurb itself) Cassie could go undercover again as Lexie. The pathology report shows that the woman in the derelict cottage died from a single stab wound which did not happen in the cottage itself, the woman had run from somewhere to the cottage, and bled to death there. Had she been discovered earlier, she might have survived.

The group (including the dead Lexie) were very much the golden, charismatic, bound together elite (and odd, skeletons in their backgrounds) of The Secret History. French adds something else into this however – there is very much a sense of the yearning, soulmate romance of deep friendship, above and beyond sexuality, the kind of friendship that arises in youth, and at the time seems as if it could last a lifetime. And in this book, it is centred as much on place as time. Even whilst within that place there is a kind of looking back to it, a ‘Lost Domaine/Grand Meaulnes’ quality. Cassie herself and Cassie taking on this second ‘Lexie Madison’ identity and the 4 others, is someone who longs for the powerful sense of belonging, of friendships as a more powerful bond than bloodkin, and a more powerful bond than the one-to-one of sexual partnership.

In the sitting room the piano is open, wood glowing chestnut and almost too bright to look at in the bars of sun, the breeze stirring the yellowed sheet music like a finger. The table is laid ready for us, five settings – the bone-china plates and the long-stemmed wineglasses, fresh-cut honeysuckle trailing from a crystal bowl – but the silverware has gone dim with tarnish and the heavy damask napkins are frilled with dust……Somewhere in the house, faint as a fingernail-flick at the edge of my hearing, there are sounds: a scuffle, whispers. It almost stops my heart. The others aren’t gone, I got it all wrong, somehow. They’re only hiding; they’re still here, for ever and ever

And that quote is as powerful a paean to memory, and the sense of our pasts almost within reach, as any I’ve read

This is indeed a long book (she shares that too, with Tartt!) – at nearly 700 pages, but the unravelling of the story, the careful and believable psychology of all the major characters, the tangles and twists of all the relationships, and, for Cassie herself, the weirdness of being herself-and-not-herself, the whole question of identity, arising when anyone is leading any kind of double life, is superlative. And there is also the fascination of the police procedural itself, and how individual police can marry their work functions, with who each of them is, individually.

Most of all – it is the wonderful, seductive quality of French’s writing, and a first personTana French b+w narrator who grabs the reader and makes them as desperate to want the golden lads and lasses to be real, and unsullied as Cassie would like, because of her own yearning for lifelong soulmates, whilst at the same time, making us as needy of her fierce professional desire to solve that crime as she is. She (and we) know that there are two drives going on here, which may not be compatible

The Likeness Amazon UK
The Likeness Amazon USA

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